CHICAGO, Ill. — Kentucky’s 80-72 victory over North Carolina on Saturday in Chicago was a great early holiday present in more ways than one for the Big Blue Nation.
For one, they defeated one of their blue-blooded rivals on a neutral floor and two, they looked pretty damn good doing it, too.
The “good” part about Kentucky potentially turning their season around in a sense is that they did it as a team.
It wasn’t Malik Monk hanging almost half a hundred on the Tar Heels this time. Saturday was a collective team effort, especially from the likes of someone like PJ “His Mugs Are Never Not Mean” Washington, who flirted with a triple-double against one of the better frontcourts in the country.
Washington’s numbers were fantastic — 11 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 30:51 of action — but it wasn’t just the offensive production he gave the Cats.
It was the energy that he and Reid Travis gave the Cats throughout much of the contest, blocking four shots and altering countless others.
Travis was outstanding, pouring in 20 points on 13 shots with six rebounds and 11 (!) fouls drawn. He and Washington looked like one of the nation’s scariest frontcourts themselves against Pitt transfer Cam Johnson and noted Kentucky killer Luke Maye.
North Carolina was averaging 45 rebounds a game coming into Saturday and had the nation’s best rebound margin at 14.1 per game.
Kentucky grabbed 43 (15 of them by either Travis and Washington) pff the window while holding the Heels to just 33 total, including just five on the offensive end, 9.5 boards below their 10-game average this season.
“I think they did a great job again tonight. They did the same against Utah last weekend,” Tyler Herro said in the post-game press conference after the win.
“You know, Reid is a veteran to us and we look up to him a lot. When he’s tall like that, you almost have to follow him, the way he passed tonight was amazing. It was good.”
“I think that he (Travis) came out ready to play and aggressive, and same with PJ, just sharing the ball and being willing passers, and it paid off,” Keldon Johnson added.
Between the two bigs, they combined for 11 of Kentucky’s 24 assists on Saturday.
(Note: Kentucky had 28 makes total as a team.)
Safe to say Kentucky made efficient use of the shot clock. pic.twitter.com/KQH27PNah3— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 23, 2018
Washington racked up one of his eight assists on one of three huge second-half shots for Kentucky with a shade under nine minutes to play and the Cats leading by seven.
Kentucky never really had what one would call a comfortable lead all day long, but when they needed a shot to fall, they got one (actually, two) in the form of Keldon Johnson.
The beautiful thing about this particular play was that it was really late in the shot clock, the play had broken down, and the Cats still found a way to get a beautiful look from deep — a common trend against the Heels on Saturday.
When asked about Travis and Washington feeding off each other, Kentucky coach John Calipari said they were “pretty good. We still have a ways to go, though.”
“I’ll watch it on tape. I thought there were four or five that we held on to too long that we tried to do the harder thing versus just give the ball to the open man, but we’re getting better.”
This wasn’t one of them.
(When you watch Kentucky’s offense sometimes, you see Herro roll down the baseline within the movement of the offense. It’s a prelude to this if the defense falls asleep. Even when his shot doesn’t fall, he moves well off the ball. It also helps when a big can deliver a dime like this one, too.)
Excellent backdoor pocket pass from PJ Washington to Tyler Herro. pic.twitter.com/UdbBD77m11— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) December 23, 2018
Or this one.
Or, this one either.
And, you can’t forget about this lovely wrap-around pass from Washington to Travis for the dunk.
One of the most important passes (and shots) of the contest came on a Travis assist out of a double team in the post to Herro on the weak side for 3.
At this point, Kentucky’s 12-point lead in the early part of the second half was down to just four and the Cats needed a bucket badly.
Travis got doubled, but stayed cool, calm and relaxed to find a wide-open Herro, who shot just 6-of-17 on the day, but all three of his makes from deep felt key for the Cats.
Another key shot came when Travis was hounded deep in the paint with the Cats up 66-60 with about six minutes to play and the big man found Washington for what was seemingly a back-breaking triple.
Washington and Travis were huge on the glass, but it was their ball movement — along with the balls-to-the-wall efforts of Ashton Hagans on defense and Keldon Johnson’s big-shot taking and making abilities — that made all the difference for Kentucky.
There’s plenty to love about Kentucky’s performance against the Heels. (And, there hasn’t been no mention of Nick Richards grabbing five rebounds and blocking a shot to go along with his pretty baseline hook in just 10 minutes of action either.)
The Cats did what they had to do and that’s play off each other. They moved the ball, they used their quickness, size and length to make life hard on most shot attempts defensively, and ... they got the most important thing: the win.
When those things happen and Kentucky plays as a strong unit on both ends of the floor, it’ll be hard for the BBN to not feel like this watching games.