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By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s hard to imagine that a mid-January game at Auburn could even be considered in the “must-win” category for Kentucky. Yet that was exactly the case Saturday when UK responded with one of its best overall games of the season to win 75-53 to start a stretch where they will play four of five games on the road.
By winning, Kentucky is now 3-1 in Southeastern Conference play and 12-5 overall. A loss would have been perhaps a near fatal hit to UK’s NCAA Tournament resume, and that certainly seemed possible with freshman big man Willie Cauley-Stein out after minor knee surgery Thursday. It seemed even more likely when UK missed 12 of its first 14 shots and freshman center Nerlens Noel got in first-half foul trouble.
But perhaps this relatively obscure road game was what UK needed to start doing the things coach John Calipari wanted. Kentucky made 28 of its last 41 shots and seemed to get significant contributions from everyone who played, including Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood, as five players scored in double figures.
The intangibles were important, too.
Start with freshman Archie Goodwin, who had drawn the ire of many UK fans with his recent play on offense. But he had 12 points, seven rebounds, three steals and one assist and his defense on Frankie Sullivan, the SEC’s second leading scorer, was perhaps the biggest key to the game. Sullivan didn’t score the first 13 minutes, was 0-for-6 from 3-point range and had to take 16 shots to get 12 points. He came into the game with nine games of 20 or more points this season.
“I thought Archie did as good a job defensively as we have seen all year. It thought it was his best game,” said UK Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt after the game.
Goodwin even told Pratt on the postgame radio show that he was working to be UK’s “defensive stopper” and Kentucky coach John Calipari said he had an “efficient” performance and didn’t take bad shots.
“The thing is he had Nerlens back there getting those blocks,” Calipari said. “That helps him.”
Pratt also made one other significant statement.
“What you liked is that what was reviewed at the shootaround, is that they followed the scouting report. I consider that a major accomplishment. Let’s see if they do that Tuesday at Alabama,” Pratt said.
Calipari noted that UK emphasized stopping the 3-point shot, and Auburn went 0-for-15 from long range. That’s about as efficient as a team can be following the scouting report.
“Like I told my team, we are built for this. It’s what we are. What I am trying to get them to do is compete,” Calipari said on his postgame radio show. “Wins and losses come and go. What defines you is your sense of fight and competitive effort. If you don’t play that way, that is how you are defined. This was one of our better efforts, and it was an effort on the road. But we had Vandy like this and almost lost, so this means we are growing.
Tuesday’s game at Alabama will be another test for a team that has been inconsistent most of the season and needs desperately to string together a lot of wins.
But another Pratt insight during the game should offer the possibility that UK might be ready to do that.
“Kentucky has had some nice runs, but what I like best is that they have been able to shut this Auburn team down,” Pratt said. “The thing I also like is that Kentucky is playing through the bumps and finishing plays, something it has not done.”
Calipari liked that, too, because it showed the effort he has been wanting his players to show was on display.
“This was what we needed at this time. We needed to start to see the the fruits of the labor (pay off). We needed to start seeing signs that we are going to be fine,” the UK coach said.