LEXINGTON – A clearly distracted bunch of Kentucky Wildcats played maybe half a game Wednesday afternoon and that was good enough to escape Rupp Arena with an 86-73 victory over the Long Beach State 49ers.
Kentucky goes into the Christmas break, hopefully with a lesson learned and its 13th victory of the season against no losses. The Wildcats are off until they host Hartford on Tuesday night (7 p.m. on ESPN2).
All signs Wednesday indicated that the Wildcats were a bunch of fat cats coming off the 2,000th victory in school history on Monday when they demolished Drexel 88-44 at Rupp. That, probably more than the players eyeing a brief Christmas break, had a lot to do with a sluggish showing against a good, quick Long Beach team.
UK coach John Calipari wore an ‘I told you so’ look after a game Wednesday that saw Kentucky rally from a 46-44 deficit some five minutes into the second half.
“I have done this so long that certain things you can expect,” Calipari said with a shrug. “On the game before Christmas and following the 2,000th win, where there is a celebration and people are going nuts, there is going to be a little bit of a letdown the next game. Especially when you have little to no practice time and it is 36 hours later.
“Let me tell you, the good news was that at the end of the game we were able to grind it out and execute everything to a tee, down the stretch,” Calipari added. “When we had to make plays, we did it, which was a good sign.”
Long Beach coach Dan Monson acknowledge the post-Drexel factor in the Wildcats’ subpar first half but scoffed at the notion that the pending Christmas break had anything to do with Kentucky’s careless play early on.
“I think that’s a question for them,” Monson said, when asked about UK’s blues. “I think they’re a young team that’s only going to get better. They’re not going to play perfect every game. I would hope to say we caused them to do some things different than they normally do. Our kids are anxious to go home for Christmas, too. The date doesn’t change when you go back to California. I mean, it’s Christmas for everybody in two days.
“I will say this,” Monson added. “I’m glad we weren’t Drexel. They caught them at a bad time. Whether we caught them at a good time, I don’t know, but I was watching that Drexel game while getting ready for Loyola Marymount and I was shaving, and I almost committed suicide, I mean, my razor started going crazy. I thought, ‘I’ve got to quit watching this game while I shave’ because they looked awful good the other day. And they’re going to do that. They’re a young team. But, I thought we caused some of that. We didn’t back down. We battled.”
It didn’t help Kentucky’s cause that super freshmen DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall both picked up two early fouls and went to the bench for most of the first half. Cousins’ second foul was a technical as he briefly regressed from the emotional progress he’d made of late.
That made the game a dogfight throughout the first half, a period that ended with the two teams knotted at 37-37.
Monson sensed it didn’t bode well for his 49ers that the score was tied at the intermission given that Wall played only eight minutes and Cousins two minutes in the first half.
“When you’re playing a team of that caliber, your margin for error is so small,” said Monson, who formerly coached at Minnesota. “We got Wall and Cousins out in the first half. So we squandered a little opportunity when we were tied at the half, because you know they are going to come out with Cousins and Wall. You know it’s going to be a whole different second half.
“Like I told Coach Calipari at the end, it was like a heavyweight fighter battling a weight class lower,” Monson added. “They just pounded it inside in the second half, and we didn’t have a physical answer inside to match up. We were pretty even on the boards at every timeout and then (the difference) ends up at seven (45-38 for UK on the boards). It was indicative of the last 10 minutes and them wearing us down.”
The Wildcats took the lead for good, 51-49, on two free throws by Cousins with 13:51 left in the game, and Kentucky slowly pulled away after that.
Wall ended up leading the winners in scoring with 19 points, while adding five assists, two turnovers, four rebounds and four steals in 26 minutes.
Patterson had a poor first half but finished 15 points and 11 rebounds in 32 minutes. Cousins had another eye opening line, contributing with 15 points and 10 rebounds in just 13 minutes.
If he could only stay on the court.
“He has grown up, and he is getting better,” Calipari said of Cousins. “He knows, but he has never been held to a standard that he is now. You just have to hold him to that standard and let him know that this action is going to lead to that reaction from me every single time, not every once in a while.”
Freshman guard Eric Bledsoe had a poor first half but finished strong, contributing 11 points, five assists and four rebounds in 27 minutes.
“Eric played the way he is capable of playing,” Calipari said of Bledsoe’s second half. “This is all a lesson for the team. They are so inexperienced and so young. They don’t understand. It wasn’t just the young guys. The veterans did it, too. Patrick (Patterson) got pushed around and shoved around.”
But, Kentucky did win, against a decent team on a night when the Wildcats were far from their best
Though this victory probably did not do anything to deter the perception that the Wildcats are a notch below the likes of Texas and Kansas nationally. Texas beat Long Beach State, 107-74, on Dec. 7 in Austin. The 49ers have also lost to Notre Dame (82-62), West Virginia (85-62) and Clemson (87-79) and have beaten UCLA (who hasn’t?).
“Those other teams we have played are a little better (than UK), in my opinion,” said Long Beach senior guard Stephen Gilling. “This team has a lot of talent and a lot of athleticism, and that is how they win.”
That, and a little more experience, may be enough to get the Wildcats where they want to go obviously.
That’s one of the Christmas wishes for all Kentucky fans.