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By LARRY VAUGHT
Certainly Kentucky would love to have freshman Enes Kanter of Turkey playing this year, but coach John CalipariÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team is certainly doing fine without him as it knocked off Washington 74-67 Tuesday night in the Maui Classic for its fourth straight win.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You cannot learn about your team Ã¢â‚¬â€œ IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve said this before Ã¢â‚¬â€œ (by playing) Popcorn State. You cannot learn. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got to learn against NCAA Tournament-level teams,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Calipari a few weeks ago.
Well, he certainly learned plenty about his young Cats in this win over an experienced team that went to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen last year. He learned that point guard Brandon Knight is as tough and gritty as he is talented Ã¢â‚¬â€ he led UK with 24 points.
He learned that Terrence Jones will work inside and on defense even when heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not spectacular on offense Ã¢â‚¬â€ he had 16 points and 17 rebounds. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This kid can do it all. His understanding of the game, his ability to make 3Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s, he elevates with the best of them and has an unbelievable body. He is a solid guy,Ã¢â‚¬Â said ESPN analyst Bill Rafferty.
Maybe, just maybe most importantly Calipari learned that senior center Josh Harrellson Ã¢â‚¬â€ who has been doing extra running for weeks now after Calipari did not like his Twitter message Ã¢â‚¬â€ can be a factor as he had a career-high 13 rebounds and nine points. His play helped UK pull off an incredible 19 offensive rebounds Ã¢â‚¬â€ without Kanter.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You have to give Kentucky a lot of credit for the way it defended the Washington offense,Ã¢â‚¬Â ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.
Amen to that. This game had the intensity of a NCAA matchup Ã¢â‚¬â€ and it had nothing to do with Jones originally committing to Washington and then switching to UK. It was two teams playing for early season respect and this will be a huge win over an experienced, talented team for Kentucky when the NCAA seedings are made.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is hard game to officiate. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a lot of physical play,Ã¢â‚¬Â Bilas said.
There was also a lot of smart play by the Wildcats. It might have been DeAndre Liggins diving on the floor for a loose ball and calling timeout Ã¢â‚¬â€ something he may do more and better than anyone in the country. It might have been Darius Miller immediately dribbling the ball away from the basket after grabbing an offensive rebound in the last 90 seconds. It might have been Knight overcoming early foul trouble, keeping his poise and keeping UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s offense in sync late in the game.
Or what about the clutch free throw shooting when it counted. Kentucky has been terrible this season at the line. After going 11-for-22 against Oklahoma Monday, the Cats were struggling again Tuesday before going 8-for-10 in the final four minutes. Reserve Eloy Vargas made the first two and Darius Miller made the last two to seal the victory.
Now the Cats get Connecticut, a 70-67 upset winner over No. Michigan State, in WednesdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 10 p.m. EST final on ESPN.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We just showed the world we can play,Ã¢â‚¬Â said UConnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Kemba Walker, who scored 30 points and hit a key jumper with less than a minute left.
However, Kentucky did the same thing.
Remember, a week ago Calipari said his team might come home from its trip west 1-3. Now the Cats are 3-0 on the trip and poised to pull off an incredible early-season feat by winning the Maui Invitational.