Kentucky got an important piece of the puzzle back in win over Penn. ‘He leads our team.’

Before Kentucky’s 81-66 win over Penn on Saturday afternoon, John Calipari told D.J. Wagner that he was putting him in the starting lineup.

“You should start Reed,” the 18-year-old freshman told his Hall of Fame coach, signaling he was just fine with Reed Sheppard — the team’s best player to this point — getting in ahead of him, if that’s what was best for this UK squad.

No, Calipari said. If Wagner was going to play — after missing the Wildcats’ shocking 80-73 loss to UNC Wilmington with an ankle injury a week earlier — he was going to start.

“Your leadership and how you play is going to be good for this group,” Calipari said.

So Wagner returned to the lineup. He scored nine points, dished out a season-high seven assists and committed just two turnovers in more than 30 minutes on the court.

“He did good,” Calipari said.

Kentucky guard D.J. Wagner (21) passes the ball against Penn guard Tyler Perkins (4) during Saturday’s game in Philadelphia.
Kentucky guard D.J. Wagner (21) passes the ball against Penn guard Tyler Perkins (4) during Saturday’s game in Philadelphia.

Wagner wasn’t the star of the Wildcats’ bounce-back win. That honor went to his high school teammate, Aaron Bradshaw, who led UK with 17 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in just his second career game.

But Wagner was back, and that was big for these Cats.

“What D.J. gives this team is a toughness,” Calipari said. “You ready for this statement, because I’ve watched him: a will to win. He’s not afraid that we’re gonna lose. We’re not thinking about losing. We got a will to win. He leads our team. He talks like he’s a senior. He gathers ’em, and he builds their confidence because of what he says to ’em. And now he’s getting more consistent and doing all the other stuff. Defensively today, he did a heckuva job.”

Wagner’s return meant one more playmaker for the defense to keep tabs on. It meant one more athletic, willing defender to try and disrupt things on the other end. And it meant all those intangibles that go along with a player whose competitiveness rivals any in the country were back, as well.

That kind of stuff is contagious.

“The kids fought today,” Calipari said.

They needed to in order to avoid a second consecutive upset.

Things were going smoothly enough as the game neared halftime. The Cats were, seemingly, rolling to a blowout victory over the double-digit underdogs from Philly.

Former UK standout Tyrese Maxey — now a star for the Philadelphia 76ers — sat center court in Wells Fargo Center, where he’d dropped 30 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks the night before. As the game neared halftime, former Kentucky teammate Immanuel Quickley — now a New York Knick but still a staunch UK supporter — strolled down the sideline and gave Maxey a big hug.

Right around then, the Cats started to falter. Their 16-point lead with about a minute left in the first half was cut to 10 points with a Penn flurry going into the break. The Quakers then made their first six shots out of the halftime locker room — three of them were 3-pointers — and the heat was on once again. The last of those shots cut Kentucky’s lead to 47-46.

The Cats made a run of their own to go up 10 points. And then Penn answered with two more 3-pointers, prompting another Calipari timeout, his team up 61-57 with more than 10 minutes left.

Antonio Reeves hit a jumper. Assist to Wagner. Shortly after that, Wagner came up with a steal, and that led to another Reeves basket. The Cats went on the break again on their next possession, and Wagner’s layup shot UK’s lead back to 10 points. It was never single digits again.

Calipari said afterward that Wagner had practiced only one time since going down with the ankle injury late in the first half of Kentucky’s win over No. 8 Miami nearly two weeks ago. The offensive onslaught that occurred that night with Wagner sidelined prompted some second-guessing. Sheppard made his first start the next game — much to the delight of many fans — and he played well, leading the Cats in every major statistical category. That UK lost that game wasn’t his fault by any stretch, but it was proof that the Cats need Wagner out there, too.

He made his return just a few miles from his Camden, New Jersey, home.

“It was great,” Wagner said. “I’m just happy to be back home, with my teammates, seeing my family and my friends in the stands — it felt great, just to be able to play in front of those people again. But most importantly, we got the win. That was the biggest thing, just getting the win.”

And there were some other positives, too.

Bradshaw’s emergence as a possible force — and a much-needed rim-protector — was the obvious one. His presence also allowed Tre Mitchell to grab a season-high nine rebounds. Sheppard and Rob Dillingham returned to their “super sub” roles. And they both had their moments. Dillingham tied Bradshaw with 17 points, settling down in the second half after several “messin’ with the ball” moments that had Calipari grimacing on the sidelines early. Sheppard had six points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and zero turnovers. A little bit of everything.

Reeves scored 16 points. He made his first 3-pointer, then missed four in a row.

“The best thing that happened is he missed all those open shots,” Calipari said. “Now I need to know: Can you now make a play? And he did.”

Reeves made those back-to-back buckets on plays started by Wagner to get the Cats going again.

“And then he made the 3 that basically ended the game,” Calipari finished. “Now he hadn’t done that before. So it was a big thing for him, too.”

That 3-pointer put Kentucky up 70-57, and Penn never threatened again.

Kentucky outrebounded Penn 41-31. That was a major point of emphasis over the week of practices preceding this game.

“You understand they outrebound everybody they play,” Calipari said of the Quakers. “They’re outrebounding everybody by seven. And coming in, we have worked the last week on blocking out. We invented drills to get ’em to block out.”

Penn had actually been outrebounding opponents by eight per game coming into this weekend, a rare moment of Calipari getting it wrong in the other direction. But he was clearly pleased with the effort.

There were still some shortcomings. How did these Cats defend as a team?

“You can answer that,” the defensive-minded coach shot back. Not well, suggested his tone. There were rushed shots and some bad decisions, typical of a young team in early December.

But it was another game that showed the building blocks for something special are here. Bradshaw’s emergence brings a new wrinkle to an already talented bunch. And Wagner’s return gives the Cats the driving force to continue moving forward.

“This guy, whatever I say to do, he does,” Calipari said. “And that moment, he does it.”

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