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Kentucky picks right time to show off its potential

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Narratives are a funny thing when it comes to Kentucky basketball.

In reality, the Wildcats’ 78-70 overtime win versus Louisville on Saturday wasn’t going to make or break their season. It was the final game of 2019, the next-to-last nonconference game of the season and the final game before SEC play. But since they were coming off a two-game losing streak and playing at home against their biggest rival, it was billed as a bellwether game of sorts for the Wildcats.

The stakes were clear for the Wildcats, from a narrative perspective. Lose and the team is in a free fall, what with a three-game losing streak and one good win on the season. Win and the team is an SEC title contender, with two of the best nonconference victories in the country and a win over their in-state rival.

Kentucky opted for the latter, finishing the game on a 13-2 run and scoring eight points in the final 27 seconds to provide the margin.

The Wildcats seemed poised to blow the game open early in the second half, taking a 12-point lead on an Immanuel Quickley 3-pointer; but Louisville erased the entire deficit and took the lead midway through the second half. After a back-and-forth final few minutes — capped by a Keion Brooks Jr. tip-in layup rimming out at the buzzer of regulation — the game went to overtime.

John Calipari, who has now been in charge of the Wildcats for more than a decade, was obviously aware of the ever-shifting headlines that could have come out of Saturday’s contest.

“We go through this every year,” Calipari said. “There’s probably many people here that thought we were gonna lose … so they can say, ‘It’s over, they’re not gonna be in the NCAA tournament, they’re an NIT team.’ Look, I don’t buy any of the stuff when they say we’re great or when they say we’re bad. What I look at, where can this team go? What if we lost on a half-court bank shot? ‘We’re done.’ What? That may be the No. 1 team, or Ohio State. You’re right there on the court with them, that means you stink, you’re not even in the NCAA tournament? … If they’re that good, what are we when we play good?”

For Kentucky, Saturday’s outcome was more important because of how the Wildcats were able to beat Louisville. It answered a lot of questions that have been asked of Calipari’s team over the past few weeks, a stretch filled with losses in Las Vegas to Utah and Ohio State.

Tyrese Maxey‘s emergence as a legitimate go-to-guy seemed to be a foregone conclusion after the first game of the season. The freshman guard scored 26 points off the bench against Michigan State, hitting the game-clinching shot late in the game, and he was the guy Kentucky looked to when it needed a basket. But Maxey hasn’t quite reached those heights in a big game since then, and his 3-point shot had all but disappeared. Entering Saturday, he had made one 3-pointer this month — on 16 attempts.

Season-opener Maxey returned against Louisville. He finished with 27 points on 14 shots, hitting the go-ahead basket with 32 seconds left in regulation and icing the game with free throws late in overtime.

“Tyrese loves those big games, probably more than the quote-unquote ‘regular games,'” Quickley said. “He loves the big spotlight and stuff like that. For him to come out and play really well in this game is no big stretch for him.”

Maxey was unguardable for long stretches, hitting three 3-pointers in the first half and getting the ball on nearly every possession late in the game.

“I told y’all I wasn’t going to quit shooting,” Maxey said. “I believe in myself. I put the work in. I put the time in. It’s gonna fall — and it fell tonight.”

Buoyed by Maxey’s first-half performance, Kentucky’s 3-point shooting took a needed step forward on Saturday. As a team, the Wildcats have shot below 30% from 3-point range on the season, and they went 13-for-57 in their three losses. Given that Maxey, Quickley and Nate Sestina are all above-average 3-point shooters, things were bound to change at some point. And it happened on Saturday: Kentucky shot 7-for-15 from 3-point range — including making six of their final nine attempts from behind the arc.

Another constant issue this season for Kentucky has been a lack of inside production. Junior big man Nick Richards has taken steps forward this season, but he has really struggled against good competition. In the three losses so far, Richards totaled 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also had just seven points before fouling out in the season opener against Michigan State. Richards answered the bell on Saturday, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds and playing most of the latter stages of the game with four fouls. His offensive rebound and 3-point play with less than two minutes left in overtime was a turning point in the extra period.

“What I told the team is that he has to get the ball, we gotta get him touches,” Calipari said of Richards. “If we can get him touches by how we’re playing, we just got to throw it to him. And Nick, you gotta fight for position, so we must throw it to you.”

Kentucky also showed improved toughness on the defensive end. Louisville star Jordan Nwora entered Saturday as one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball this season, a legitimate Wooden Award contender. He exited it with one of his worst games over the past two campaigns.

Nwora finished with just eight points, shooting 2-for-10 from the field. Perhaps the best example of his struggles was the fact he didn’t attempt a single shot from the field from the 3:25 mark of the first half until the 2:21 mark of the second half. Calipari started with freshman Brooks on Nwora, with Brooks’ size and length causing issues. The coach then switched to Quickley, who chased Nwora around and face-guarded him for most of the late stages of regulation and in overtime.

“I think he just missed some shots that he normally makes,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said of Nwora. “I think he really didn’t get going on the offensive glass until midway through the second half. It was too late by then.

“Obviously, he wasn’t very good on the floor today. No one puts in more time than Jordan, but he didn’t play very well today.”

Quickley offered his take.

“Coach said whoever guards Nwora the best is playing the whole game,” Quickley said. “I just wanted to play in the game, so I said, ‘If I get on Nwora, I just want to make it hard.’ He’s a really good player, but he just had a tough night.”

What we saw Saturday night from Kentucky was its potential, something we haven’t seen enough of this season from the Wildcats. But facing a three-game losing streak and in their home arena against their biggest rival, they stepped up and answered the call. Perhaps more importantly, they showed promise for how good this team can be two months from now.

“It’s a process,” Calipari said. “I’ve said all along, my team is good.”

Can the Wildcats be great? We’ll find out in SEC play, but Saturday’s performance provided plenty of optimism.

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