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By LARRY VAUGHT
For this Kentucky team, there are no bad wins — especially on the road.
So while there was plenty not to like, or at least worry about, from Saturday’s 72-68 overtime win over Texas A&M the bottom line is that UK won to go to 6-2 in Southeastern Conference play and did not let Tuesday’s gutty win at Mississippi go to waste.
This Kentucky team still has little margin for error when it comes to building its NCAA Tournament resume and this was a must win over a team that came into Rupp Arena and beat the Cats — and has won just one game since then. Now UK gets to come back home for two games and has a chance to get to 8-2 in league play and maybe almost inch its way back into the national rankings.
Kentucky seemed to have the game put away with an 8-point lead with only about four minutes to play only to have Texas A&M close with a 10-2 run to force overtime. But just as the Cats did at Ole Miss when the Rebels threw a haymaker, UK staggered, fought back and won.
Again, Nerlens Noel was amazing. He’s got to be the nation’s best defender, and just might develop into the nation’s best overall player. He had two points and 12 blocks at Mississippi to alter the game. This time he had 19 points and 14 rebounds to more than make up for just having two blocks. He also had three steals and two blocks in 41 splendid minutes of play.
But if I was giving MVP honors to any player in this win, it would be Julius Mays. The senior’s experience may well have got UK this road win. Every time UK seemed ready to fade, he made some kind of play. He had a season-high 19 points and was 4-for-6 from 3-point range and 5-for-6 at the foul line. He got two rebounds, two assists and one steal. But his best contribution in his 41 minutes was his defense on A&M star Elston Turner. Mays is not known for his defense, but he got the assignment on Turner the second half and made him work for shots and scores. Turner had 21 points, but he missed 16 of 23 shots.
“Late in game we just made four or five plays that almost let them beat us,” UK coach John Calipari said. “In overtime, we gutted it out. Alex was a beast and we don’t win the game without Julius’s defense. Archie just can’t defend that kid (Elston Turner).”
Calipari also correctly noted that this was his team’s fourth SEC road win in five tries. Two years ago UK went to the Final Four with a team that was 2-6 in SEC road games.
Kentucky had breakdowns — four straight turnovers in the final minutes of regulation. It had defensive lapses. But it did show a will to win or fight or something that has developed in recent weeks.
“We are still not there. Nerlens has a will to win and lot of others guys not there yet,” Calipari said. “We did a pretty good job getting to the foul line and making free throws. Nerlens was great. We needed to give him the ball more. There were more opportunities for him to get the ball and we didn’t throw it to him.”
True, but just think about this. UK overcame six turnovers by Kyle Wiltjer, gave Texas A&M 17 more shots thanks in part to 19 turnovers, and had point guard Ryan Harrow make five turnovers and miss six of nine shots … and still won.