John Calipari summed it up when he said, “What in the world did I do playing these guys?”
The Ohio team that ventured to Rupp Arena came with all the swagger of a tournament team that did not know they were supposed to lose. From the opening tip throughout the first half they gave the Cats all they wanted. In a back and forth, give and take half of play the game turned out to be a learning experience, once again, for the latest edition of the University of Kentucky team.
Oscar “The Force” Tshiebwe was forced out of the game after the first minute with 2 personal fouls. The hub of the UK team, whom curmudgeon West Virginia coach Bob Huggins called an “alleged McDonalds All American” who didn’t like to “do things that were hard,” has proven that Oscar’s move away from the whiny West Virginia head coach was more about a better atmosphere than a bad attitude.
In the right atmosphere of Lexington, Oscar has been a rebounding machine, leading the nation, and able to disrupt and impact the game inside the paint in powerful ways. With 19 minutes left in the first half, Kentucky had to play without him. It was rough, there were times it looked ragged, but they did it.
For 13 minutes, they tried to find a way to handle Ohio. They shot their way back into the game to regain the lead with 7 minutes to play in the first half to finally enter the locker room with a 40-38 lead. Bryce Hopkins became the hero of the half, figuring out how to pick up the slack and scooped in 7 rebounds. Ty Ty Washington bolstered his teammates scoring 12 points and adding 7 boards.
The first half reminded us of how essential Tshiebwe is to this team but how this team was going to have to learn to play without him. It will not be the last time that “The Force” is forced out due to foul trouble. Learning how to play with a different combination and learning to play with the odds against you is vital for a team at this time of the year. Ohio was the perfect tough opponent to go to school with.
The second half could best be described as aggressive. They ran, they kept running, and they pushed even harder and the team took care of business in the final 20 minutes. Tshiebwe did return and picked up 10 second half rebounds. The exchanges back and forth were furious. Ben Vander Plas from Ohio gave the Cats fits but the defense kicked up the pace and found an extra gear that had been missing in the first twenty. There was a crucial moment of play around the 11:30 mark where a flurry of activity took place on the offensive end. There were missed shots, strong board play, hustle and an unwillingness to be denied that ended with a kick out to Washington for a three pointer – and with that the run was on and in many ways - the never say die effort put the game away!
When the buzzer sounded, the team had picked up a third win, had discovered how to play some different combinations, and more importantly how to win when the game turns in ways you hadn’t planned on. Built different is a phrase that is often used but in this game had to be taken to heart. Staying in the game and then putting yourselves in a position to win is a valuable skill set the team will need during the long haul of SEC play waiting on the calendar in the days ahead.
Brooks had 22. Washington finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Mintz added a timely 12 points, and Wheeler contributed 11 points and the team answered the question Coach Cal asked.
“What in the world did I do playing these guys (Ohio)?”
He gave the team an opportunity to learn how to win in a different way.
We’ll take it, learn from it, run with it, and use it as the year continues.