By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s hard to imagine with the way John Calipari stockpiles talent that Kentucky could have only seven players healthy enough to play in a Southeastern Conference showdown.
But that’s exactly what happened in Tuesday’s 74-73 over Texas A&M.
The Aggies got two key players — Robert Williams (illness) and Admon Gilder (knee) — back after they had missed games while UK had Quade Green (back), Tai Wynyard (back), Jarred Vanderbilt (left) and Jamarl Baker (knee) all out. If that wasn’t enough, three UK players had two fouls by halftime.
However, the Cats played with more desperation and inspiration than they had in Saturday’s loss at Tennessee.
“Toughness doesn’t necessarily mean roughness. Toughness means you are engaged,’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Until we get really good at that, we are who we are. A&M had a chance to beat us at the end.”
Calipari said giving A&M a wide-open 3-pointer down two points in the final 30 seconds showed UK’s lack of toughness.
“Thank God he missed that shot,” Calipari said.
Kentucky did stagger to the finish after fighting to overcome the lead A&M had most of the second half.
In the last 37 seconds, P.J. Washington missed three free throws, including two with 4.4 seconds left. Kevin Knox had a turnover and missed a free throw. The Cats got beat for a fast-break dunk off a made free throw. They also had a turnover by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“We turned it over twice and every one was a drill we work on,” Calipari said. “Again, that’s that toughness I am talking about.”
Yet the Wildcats found a way to win. Hamidou Diallo had 10 straight points in one stretch in the second half and finished with 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
“I liked Hami’s body language today. If you want to be tough, you can’t be cool. What I saw today from Hami was an engaged player. He made some mistakes, but he’s getting better,” Calipari said.
Gilgeous-Alexander was huge with 16 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two blocks and one steal in 39 minutes.
Washington had 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting along with four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“P.J. is the toughest guy (on the team),” Calipari said. “I will put the ball in his hands late so he will get fouled and have to make them.”
Calipari said A&M is short-handed but has a talented team.
“We had our opportunities. We just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch. We had a hard time guarding them without fouling them,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said.
He said the Aggies had looks as “good as you are going to get with our best shooters” not only late in the game but also in the final minutes.
Kennedy said Tyler Davis felt he was held on the final play by Wenyen Gabriel when A&M tried to get him the ball for a final shot. The ball sailed out of bounds.
“My guy thought he was bear hugged (by Gabriel). I am not quite sure what happened,” Kennedy said.
Calipari was happy to get the win but said body language “screams” and his team overall lacks toughness.
“My point to them is how we think has to change if you want how you are playing is going to change,” Calipari said.
Knox was 5-for-5 from the field and had 15 points and was much better the final 10 minutes of the game when UK needed him most. He did have four turnovers.
“The second half of the second half he was really good,” Calipari said. “That’s what we should expect. He’s one of the best players in the country. But he’s got to play tough and he did late. He’s capable of that.”
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Calipari did say that freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who has yet to play this season because of a leg injury, is “ready” to play.
“I want his first game to be a home game so he can get some love (from the fans) with things he has to work on,” Calipari said. “But I will leave that up to him.”
Kentucky plays Saturday at Vanderbilt.
Calipari called Vanderbilt a “willing passer” that this team needs.