Kentucky Basketball: Takeaway from Texas A&M Victory

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 64-58 win over the Texas A&M Aggies Wednesday night at College Station:

1. Kentucky wins a Super Bowl

Kentucky is everyone’s Super Bowl. That’s what John Calipari says. Every night. Any game. Especially any road race. However, in the 2021-2022 Super Bowls, the Cats were 0-2. They lost 66-62 to a packed house at Notre Dame. They lost 65-60 to a capacity crowd at LSU.

(Timeout: The 78-66 win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 11 didn’t count. Memorial Gym was far from a full house. And the majority of those in attendance were Kentucky fans. Again, Big Blue Nation went Nashville blue.)

With Texas A&M 15-2 overall and 4-0 in the SEC, and Kentucky coming up, Reed Arena was packed Wednesday night. It was the largest crowd in the venue’s history at 14,036. And it was loud. There were specially made T-shirts for the occasion. Of course there were T-shirts. There was a whiteout. Naturally. “It’s always a whiteout, or a redout, or a blackout,” Calipari said afterwards, joking that he had bought into T-shirt companies to get his share of the action.

And for much of the game, the emotional game seemed to work. Texas A&M led by 13 points. 25-12 with 7:23 to go in the first half. Buzz Williams’ team shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half. Even when Kentucky narrowed the A&M lead to five (35-30) at halftime, the Aggies had a 47-41 lead with 13:22 left.

And yet Kentucky fought back. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t particularly smooth. But the Cats rallied to take their first lead, 49-48 with 9:01 to go, then made enough moves to secure the win.

Did the Cats learn more from winning this tight Super Bowl road game than from, say, that 28-point Tennessee blowout on Saturday?

Jacob Toppin’s answer: “One hundred percent.”

2. Davion Mintz ‘was the difference maker in the game’

That was Calipari’s comment in his post-match Zoom session.

Here’s why: Normally a marksman, Kellan Grady went 1-for-9 from behind the three-point line. Normally, Sahvir Wheeler, the catalyst behind the Cats’ offensive engine, turned the ball eight times. UK came into play, shooting 50.6 per cent from the floor. The Cats finished with a 36.2 percent season low against an aggressive Aggies defense. Kentucky was a spoiled 4-for-18 of three-point range.

Mintz wasn’t much better, making only two of his seven shots. He made one of his five three-point attempts. But the sixth-year veteran scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds, made three assists and turned it over just twice in 30 minutes on the floor. His game was vital.

He got a lot of help from teammate Jacob Toppin. Keion Brooks had a hard time. The junior scored seven points and grabbed two rebounds. When Brooks failed to fight for a turnover in the second half, Calipari couldn’t get Toppin back into the game fast enough. And Jacob more than delivered with nine points and six rebounds.

And before the night was over, Toppin seemed to have guarded every Aggie on the floor. After shooting 50 percent in the first half, the Aggies shot 29.4 in the second. They missed 20 of their 22 three-point attempts. This after he entered the game and shot an SEC-best 37.4 percent out of three.

Back to Mintz. His three-pointer from the right corner with 6:54 left gave Kentucky a 54-52 lead. It was the biggest shot of the game, Calipari said, because it gave the visitors faith.

“Our guys said, ‘Oh yeah, we can win this,'” said Calipari.

3. A good road win before a huge road race

Auburn is next on the Big Blue filing. Auburn is number 2 in the last AP Top 25 and probably should have been voted number 1. Bruce Pearl’s team is now 17-1 overall and 6-0 in the SEC after his 83-60 defeat to poor Georgia on Wednesday night.

Did we mention Saturday’s game is at Auburn Arena?

That said, the British win at the Reed Arena on Wednesday was a good preparation for what will be a wild atmosphere on Saturday. Before this trip to Texas, all 14 of the Wildcats’ wins had been double-digits. Calipari’s club was 0-3 in single-digit games. Not anymore. Kentucky did what it had to do to win a possession game on the road. That’s big.

“I’m glad we got away with the win, ugly as it was,” Mintz said.

Calipari has often said that he loves it when his team scores a low percentage and still pulls in a win. I asked him whether he would rather shoot 67 percent and win at home 30 (Tennessee’s 107-79 defeat last Saturday) or shoot 36 percent and win a close game on the road?

“We shot 36 percent?” said the coach, who had thought the box score said 38 percent. “That’s even better.”

The Cats will have to shoot better than that Saturday at Auburn. But now they know they can win a tough game along the way. On to the next Super Bowl.

This story was originally published January 19, 2022 23:49.

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Born in Central Kentucky, he covered British football from 1987 until he was named a sports columnist in 2000. He has defeated 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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