Six days after a confidence-shaking loss to UCLA left Kentucky fans questioning whether this year’s squad would ever reach the heights previous John Calipari teams have, the Wildcats restored faith with by far their finest performance this season.
They hammered rival Louisville 90-61 on Friday afternoon, showing progress in a number of problem areas that had previously plagued them.
Defense should be a strength for a Kentucky team rife with length and athleticism at every position, but prior to Friday, the young Wildcats had not shown the requisite commitment at that end of the floor. Against Louisville, Kentucky did a far better job executing a defensive game plan, walling off the paint, forcing the cold-shooting Cardinals to make jump shots and then outhustling them to loose balls.
Louisville shot 35.3 percent from the field and 3 of 25 from behind the arc, fueling Kentucky’s transition attack. No Cardinals player scored more than 13 points, and only V.J. King, Deng Adel and Ray Spalding even managed double digits.
Fast-break opportunities were a big part of Kentucky’s offensive success, but the Wildcats (10-2) were also unusually effective when attacking Louisville’s typically formidable set defense. Six of 13 3-point shooting was one reason for Kentucky’s success. So was unexpectedly good point guard play from oft-maligned Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Green, typically the more offensive-minded half of Kentucky’s point guard platoon, delivered 13 points and 5 assists. Gilgeous-Alexander, normally primarily a defensive stopper, erupted for 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting, using his size and strength to score in the lane more efficiently than he had any other previous game this season.
Kentucky’s victory was its first of the season against an opponent that has spent time in the AP Top 25 this season. The Wildcats had dropped games against fellow blue bloods Kansas and UCLA earlier this season and needed a late comeback just to edge Virginia Tech at home.
Louisville entered Friday’s game just as desperate for a marquee win. While the Cardinals (10-3) have beaten rebuilding Indiana and struggling Memphis, they had lost the only two games they had played against likely NCAA tournament teams.
The modest success of both teams diminished the buzz for Friday’s matchup.
Kentucky’s fan base wasn’t as excited as usual about this year’s team because the Wildcats’ freshman-laden roster wasn’t as far along by late December as it usually is. Louisville’s fan base meanwhile has been beaten down by a series of scandals that culminated with the firing of coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich earlier this year.
Friday’s crowd was noticeably quiet during the opening tipoff, but the roar returned to Rupp Arena as Kentucky began to pull away. They opened a 14-point lead just before halftime and extended it to 20 early in the second half, exactly the type of performance they needed to halt the handwringing in Lexington and restore faith that this team may yet live up to its preseason hype.
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