Surely the many blowouts this season have been fun, but Kentucky saw more value in needing courage and resilience to beat Texas A&M 64-58 on Wednesday night.
“One-hundred percent,” Jacob Toppin said. “We walked into the locker room after the game, the first thing we said was, way to stay together in a game like this.”
Kentucky faced multiple obstacles at Texas A&M. The game was a sellout. The crowd was roused by a “white-out.”
“The environment was crazy,” Toppin said. “For us to stay together like that, it just shows the type of guys we are.”
Texas A&M, which was riding an eight-game winning streak, saw this first game against a ranked opponent as a chance to validate its 15-2 start to the season.
“I think this win will be a big win if we beat Kentucky … ,” guard Andre Gordon said Tuesday. “This will put us on the map a little bit more.”
For No. 12 Kentucky, it seemed like what could go wrong did go wrong.
Sahvir Wheeler committed a career-high eight turnovers. UK Coach John Calipari blamed himself for not preparing Wheeler for A&M’s half-court trapping that disrupted the Cats’ offense.
“I made him look bad,” Calipari said.
Kentucky was forced to limit its customary pick-and-roll action and move to what Calipari called an “iso game.”
UK made only four of 18 three-point shots. Sharpshooters Kellan Grady (one of nine) and Davion Mintz (one of five) combined to make two of 14.
Kentucky also committed 17 turnovers. “That’s not who we are,” Calipari said.
Yet, the game featured what Calipari had been saying for weeks his team needed to experience to prepare for a challenging Southeastern Conference schedule and postseason: a possession-by-possession test of nerves and composure.
Coming into the game, Kentucky had an 0-3 record in games decided by a single-digit margin. Texas A&M had won six of seven such games.
UK’s struggles in late-game execution echoed last season’s knack for coming up short.
“It’s very satisfying,” Toppin said of winning such a game. “Nothing against my teammates from last year, but we didn’t have guys who could make big-time plays down the stretch.”
Because such plays were made, Kentucky improved to 15-3 overall (5-1 in the SEC) and handed A&M its first home loss in 11 games.
For instance, Mintz’s only three came with 6:57 left. It gave Kentucky a 54-52 lead.
“That three out of the corner after a timeout, that was big,” Calipari said. “That kind of put (the Aggies) on their heels. And I think it has our guys convinced that we can win this thing.”
TyTy Washington, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week for the fourth straight time on Monday, made only three shots. His two early fouls led Calipari to take him out of the game.
Yet, Washington made two jumpers inside the final five minutes that helped keep Texas A&M at bay.
“TyTy stepped up big-time for us … ,” Toppin said. “That shows the type of player he is.”
Kentucky had trailed 35-30 at halftime. For those who believe in moral victories, being only down five points fit the description. Washington picked up his second foul with 14:57 remaining and played only briefly the rest of the half.
The Cats had trailed by as much as 13 (29-16) as late as inside the final six minutes before the break. A late rush got UK back in the game.
A&M made only three baskets in the final six minutes as Kentucky closed with a 14-6 run. Wheeler accounted for seven of those points, beginning the run with a three-pointer with 5:22 left and then capping it with a driving basket inside the second to set the halftime score.
Kentucky’s momentum carried over to the second half. UK scored the first five points to tie the score at 35. Wheeler’s second three-pointer, which equaled the season-high two he made against Duke, tied it with 18:32 left.
A&M did not waver. The second of back-to-back layups put UK behind 41-36 and prompted a timeout with 16:11 left.
Grady made his only three-point shot with 14:33 left. It brought Kentucky within 43-41.
With 9:01 left, Grady gave Kentucky its first lead. After missing a three-point shot for the seventh time in eight attempts, the long rebound found its way to Grady, A behind-the-back dribble got him in the lane for a shot to put UK ahead 49-48.
Setting the stage for last-act drama, the teams traded the lead four times in the next two-plus minutes.
“That was SEC basketball tonight … ,” Mintz said. “We learned a lot about ourselves. I’m just proud of this team because we stuck together. … Just to know we got one under our belts in tight crunch time, that’s big for us and our confidence going forward in this league.”
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 2 Auburn
When: 1 p.m. Saturday