By LARRY VAUGHT
During his time at Kentucky there have been a lot of special regular-season wins for coach John Calipari.
However, I’m not sure there has been a better one — or at least a more unexpected one — than Tuesday night’s 87-72 win over Arkansas.
Not only was Kentucky an underdog going into the game, but the Razorbacks started the game with an 11-0 lead. The rest of the way, though, UK outscored the Hogs 87-61, including 44-29 in the second half.
Kentucky dominated the rebounding 46-29 and made just 11 turnovers against Arkansas’ pressure defense. The Cats had seven steals and had 16 assists on 31 field goals.
After giving up eight 3-point goals in the first half, UK limited Arkansas to 1-for-7 shooting from 3-point range the second half.
Kentucky had its best balance of the season and had several players with sensational performances.
— Kevin Knox had 23 point on 8-for-18 shooting (3-for-8 from 3-point range) along with seven rebounds. He played 38 minutes.
— Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting, five rebounds and seven assists. He played 38 minutes.
— P.J. Washington came off the bench to score 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, grab 10 rebounds, hand out three assists and blocks two shots in 31 minutes.
— Quade Green, who hit two huge 3-point shots in the first half, had 12 points, six rebounds and four assists. He also had just one turnover in 33 minutes — meaning in the last two games he has one turnover in 64 minutes.
— Jarred Vanderbilt was everywhere. He had 11 points and nine rebounds but his energy just takes UK to another level.
Those five players were the closers in Saturday’s win over Alabama and did the same thing in this win.
“It was a great team win. We are still trying to put it together, but we made shots today. When we are making shots we can beat anybody in the country,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They came out hot but we stuck with the game plan Coach gave us and got it done.”
Yes they did and that’s not always been the case. Remember after the loss at South Carolina when Knox said the teams didn’t listen to what Calipari told them. That has stopped and players have started listening since a team meeting about 10 days ago when Calipari outlined roles for each player going forward.
“We have settled down a lot. We have been more poised going down the stretch in games,” Vanderbilt said.
Calipari admitted he was proud of his team. Arkansas had lost just one home game this year and has been one of the hardest places for opposing teams to win the last four years.
However, Kentucky turned a rabid crowd when the game opened into a crowd leaving early for the exits because of the way UK played the second half.
“The best thing that happened to this team was losing four in a row. They needed that,” Calipari said. “Then we added Jarred (in January after a preseason injury). We were discombobulated. But now there is not as much confusion. I am still fighting some guys and I am telling them I am doing this for them.
“Today we made shots. When we made shots, we can beat just about anybody.”
The coach said both Washington and Vanderbilt were “great” and said even Nick Richards and Sacha Killeya-Jones held their own when they played.
“Kevin is playing better. He is getting tougher. Experiences he needed to go through, and he has,” Calipari said.
Kentucky is also now positioning itself for a bye into the SEC Tournament quarterfinals — something that looked impossible after its four-game losing streak. Ole Miss won at Missouri Tuesday to drop Missouri to 8-7, the same as UK, Arkansas and Mississippi State.
Auburn is 11-3, Tennessee 9-5, Alabama 8-6 and Florida 8-6. But Wednesday night Alabama is at Auburn and Florida is at Tennessee. If Alabama and Florida lose, there is suddenly a six-way tie for third place with three games to go — and UK has two home games left. Or If Florida and Alabama both win, UK is still just a game out of second place.
“We weren’t worried about anything (during the losing streak),” Washington said. “We just were trying to get better and the past two games we have played great.”