[Moderated by Matt Jones]
While it’s certainly early, tonight’s game might have finally been the turning point we’ve been waiting for all year to see. The script was similar to one we’ve seen a couple of times this year. The game was close against a team you expected to have no shot in the halls of Rupp Arena but where against Baylor and A&M this squad collapsed the team rose to the occasion tonight. Most surprising though is how the Cats found a way to win in a game that could ignite the fire fans have been waiting to see.
Let’s go in depth:
-The Cats came into the game favored by fifteen and needing to avoid a loss. Tennessee came in 0-2 in the SEC and desperately needing a win. The stage was set to renew the rivalry and the game was close from start to finish. Every time the Cats had a chance to pull away they were doomed by missed shots and more importantly missed layups. The Cats struggled from the floor shooting 49% for the day but that number was brought up by late game heroics.
-Speaking of heroics the man of the day was Kyle Wiltjer. I don’t need to remind you of Kyle’s struggles as of late. He had scored two points thus far in SEC play and it was time to step up for the big man. Wiltjer answered the call as he came off the bench to score 17 and absolutely carry the team down the stretch. He was active throughout the game opting to get inside a bit and mix it up rather than stay behind the arc for every possession. He still kept it real from deep as he drained a couple big threes but him getting it done inside and on defense are what will help this team transition into one that can make some noise.
The most impressive part is that Kyle wanted it. Cal was quoted as saying “”Know what’s great about Kyle? For the first time since he’s been here, Kyle told me to run a play for him, which I absolutely did.” Kyle is the crafty veteran. He needs to be stepping up like that as a leader. He could be our best weapon and it’s about time he started playing like it.
-Wiltjer was aided tonight by the full grown man Nerlens Noel. That’s about the best way I can describe Noel’s play as of late as he just constantly finds a way to get it done and plays extremely hard on every possession. Tonight his stats were impressive once again: 12 points, 10 boards, 6 blocks and 4 steals. Noel is the heart and soul of this team. He is quickly becoming the go to scorer on the block and an unstoppable defensive force. Noel is just getting it done.
-Lately Harrow and Goodwin have been playing pretty solid but tonight just wasn’t their night. The duo combined to go 5-19 from the field including 0-4 from downtown. Goodwin’s play was especially disappointing as he just displayed poor decision making for most of the night. He fouled out after repeated picking up dumb foul after dumb four and played out of control. Harrow didn’t do anything egregious but was far from the player he was over the last few games. Everybody can have an off day so let’s hope they get back to their offensive ways.
-As for the other guys, Poythress played alright, Mays made big shots, and Cauley was solid. Alex still didn’t take over but he finished with a quiet 10 points and 8 rebounds. He scored throughout the game but still hasn’t shown that he can be a dominant force on offense. Still he didn’t play awful so there’s that… Julius Treys announced his scoring return with back to back threes and a grin from ear to ear late in the game. Kentucky is so much better when Mays is hitting shots and he was a major factor in the Cats pulling away late.
-Coach Cal also commented on the team following the game “I came to this conclusion, in the last 7-8 years I’ve coached teams that absolutely whomped people. This ain’t one of them.“. Cal is right this team isn’t going to jump out an throttle any team. I do believe that they can beat any team in the country though. They lack the firepower to blow teams out but they will be able to provide a challenge to anybody. That is what will make them so dangerous in March. That is if they can get off the bubble and in for sure.
-On defense UK still struggled on the perimeter. They made another scrub look like an all star as Jordan McRae finished with 23 and was basically the only scoring threat for the Vols. Jarnell Stokes learned to stretch but he also learned how to foul as he only scored four points and fouled out. The game being so close without Stokes is a little discouraging but big blue still won which is all that matters. On the road in Knoxville could prove to be a challenge.
Next up the Cats will head to Auburn to take on the Tigers. War Eagle sits at 8-7 and should be outclassed at every position. Hopefully tonight’s gritty win will help build some confidence to help this team turn the corner. For it all Cal still likes his team “Look, folks, we are what we are. I love this team. We have so much upside.” Let’s keep the climb going this Saturday.
Kentucky 75- Tennessee 65
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