By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky may still not know how to execute the way coach John Calipari wants at the end of a close game, but the Cats did prove one thing Tuesday night — they will not go down without a fight.
The Cats lost 65-61 to Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago. Kansas used an 11-0 spurt in 2:37 to take an 18-7 lead early in the game. Kentucky was discombobulated on offense and had trouble defending.
However, Kentucky came back to eventually get the lead and with 3:12 to play the game was tied 57-57. It’s just that Kentucky could not finish the game while Kansas — which started two seniors, one junior and two sophomores compared to UK’s five freshmen — made the plays and shots it took to win.
Freshman Kevin Knox led UK with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting and seven rebounds.
“He needs to assert himself more in the game and on the offensive glass. He is starting to figure it out. Sometimes he still drifts away and you have to send out a scout for him,” UK Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt said after the game. “But I like the way at certain times he thinks he can make a basket and lives with it. This team come February or March will be totally different.
Hamidou Diallo had 14 points, five rebounds and four assists. Kentucky also got a big boost from sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones who had 8 points on 4-for-6 shooting, 9 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 2 assists in 23 minutes.
“I was just fighting and doing what I could to give my team the best chance to win,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said.
Kentucky got out rebounded 24-13 in the first half, gave up 15 offensive rebounds and got beat 15-2 in second chance points.
“If we don’t rebound, we have no absolutely no chance to win,” Calipari said on ESPN at halftime. “We don’t want to win or we would rebound these balls. Kansas is outhustling us. I am trying to be positive but when we are getting outrebounded and getting beat to loose balls, normally my head pops of.”
Kentucky got the message and in the second half and out rebounded Kansas 26-15 in the second half.
“Coach Cal got on us about our rebounding in the first half, but we bounced back in the second half,” Knox said.
Kentucky twice had the ball down 61-59 late but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed a shot and the next possession Knox could not hit a shot. Kansas iced the game with four straight free throws by Malik Newman and Devonte Graham. The two Kansas guards were a combined 7-for-28 from the field. The Jayhawks were just 8-for-26 from 3-point range while UK was 3-for-13.
“You can only learn about your team in games like this. Not everyone on our team played well. Fine. They’re not computers,” Calipari said after the game. “We are a ways away to be what we need to be, but to be in that game with a bunch of freshmen, wow. I’ve gotta keep being positive with these guys and coaching and teaching. We had our chances but late we just have not figured out how to play. It is not their fault. We just have not figured it out yet. They tried, and I just put the guys in there who were trying.”
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said he saw reason for optimism, not panic, for UK fans.
“Kentucky is going to win a lot of games. Athletes. They are finding out who is going to play,” Vitale said.
Then he correctly predicted there would be Twitter panic for UK fans because of the loss. Maybe those critics should listen to Knox.
“A lot of people had us losing by 20 or 30 points. We fought out butts off,” Knox said. “Later in the year, we’re going to be pretty good.”
Calipari was obviously disappointed and has plenty of teaching points for his team. However, he’s stressed patience from day one with this team and despite the loss, there was ample evidence that down the road this team could be really good again.
“The balls we had to have late in the game, we just did not come up with,” Calipari said. “We just have to figure out who we are.”
Since it is only Nov. 15, this team still has more than enough time to do just that, too.