Coming off back-to-back wins against Tennessee and Georgia, the Wildcats knocked off a Texas A&M team that was undefeated in conference play and shared the top spot with Alabama prior to traveling to Lexington. The Wildcats are now above the .500 mark for the first time this season with a 4-3 conference record and will face another big road test on Tuesday when they face a much improved Vanderbilt team in Nashville.
In what’s become a common theme this season, the Wildcats got off to another slow start against the Aggies, shooting just 1-for-7 from the field as Texas A&M took an early 6-3 lead at the first official timeout. Coming off the bench, Antonio Reeves provided the spark to get the offense going as Kentucky would ultimately exchange leads during the half before Oscar Tshiebwe picked up his second foul at the 7:20 mark that sparked a 14-2 run by the visitors as Texas A&M led 31-29 at the half. Kentucky found just enough offensive firepower in the second half to get over the hump and improve its record to 13-6 overall.
Here are four things you should know from the Kentucky victory against the Aggies.
Big O, Cason Wallace held scoreless in first half
After combining for 54 points in the recent win over Georgia, Kentucky’s two leading scorers - Oscar Tshiebwe and Cason Wallace - were both scoreless in the first half to make things that much tougher for the Wildcats’ offense. Wallace was 0-for-7 from the field, while Tshiebwe missed his only shot attempt of the half. Both played much better in the second half to help get UK back in the win column.
Tshiebwe, the reigning National Player of the Year, had a monster game last week, scoring a career-high 37 points with 24 rebounds to become the first Wildcat to get 35 points and 20 rebounds since February 1976. He finished with seven points and a game-high 16 rebounds against the Aggies. Wallace finished with 11 points.
Toppin picks up the slack
UK Coach John Calipari has put some added pressure on Toppin to rebound in a smaller, three-guard lineup, but the Rhode Island transfer more than earned his keep on the offensive end with 11 first-half points. Kentucky got outrebounded 20-16 in the first half as Tshiebwe spent time on the bench with two fouls. However, Toppin and Lance Ware showed enough fight to keep things close.
Toppin, who tallied his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 boards vs. Georgia, has averaged 18.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in the three games leading up to Saturday and has helped the Wildcats become more balanced offensively. Unfortunately, Toppin, who has already battled a shoulder injury of late, took some hard shots in a physical game and went to the locker room with 5:41 left in the game. He returned to close the game with a made free throw with 11.3 remaining.
Reeves provides spark off the bench
With Calipari sticking with the starting lineup of Wallace, Fredrick, Livingston, Toppin, and Tshiebwe, Reeves was the first player off the bench and immediately connected on a three-pointer on his way to 11 first-half points. In addition to being an outstanding shooter, the 6-foot-2 guard, also has the bounce to get to the basket and hit short jumpers off the dribble. Reeves finished with a game-high 23 points. Kentucky’s other top perimeter shooter, CJ Fredrick, struggled to get going early as he was just 1-for-7 from the field with three points in the first half. He is currently averaging 7.8 points per game on 37.3% from 3-point range. Fredrick finished with 12 points in the win.
Take the lid off, please!
Despite tons of criticism this season about Calipari’s offense, the Wildcats looked sharp in the half-court on Saturday, making the extra pass and taking good shots in a sign of maturity from earlier in the year. The bad news is that the Cats almost shot themselves out of this one as they couldn’t seem to buy a three-point shot for much of the game. If there’s such a thing as a “good miss”, look no further than CJ Fredrick who looks locked in with every rotation of the ball but too often missed the mark against Texas A&M. The same can be said for Wallace and Reeves, who both watched the ball dance around the rim on multiple occasions only to come up without a basket.
The good news is that the best is yet to come for this UK offense once shots start to fall.