Cats show maturity in shootout with Arkansas

Published 1:21 pm Monday, March 4, 2024

Kentucky coach John Calipari felt uneasy about his team’s contest against an Arkansas team that has only won five Southeastern Conference games this season.

He has watched his squad take two steps forward and one step back over and over again this season. He watched as the Wildcats built an 11-point lead against the Razorbacks, only this time, Kentucky overcame 17 lead changes and 12 ties with a strong finish and held on for a 111-102 win Saturday at Rupp Arena.

No. 16 Kentucky (21-8, 11-5 SEC) carries a three-game winning streak into the final week of the regular season. The Wildcats play Vanderbilt in the final home game Wednesday night and wrap up the regular season at No. 5 Tennessee on Saturday in Knoxville. Kentucky, which has won five of its last six games, reached the century mark for the seventh time, including twice in the past week.

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In an effort to get the Cats in the right frame of mind in what could have easily been a trap game against the Razorbacks, Calipari and his team stayed at the Hyatt Regency on Friday night. The Wildcats had breakfast as a team before a rare shootaround ahead of the early afternoon contest.

“I knew this was going to be a really hard game,” Calipari said. “You know why? They’ve got a really good coach and they got really talented players that can break you down and go get baskets. What did they do? They broke us down and went and got baskets. We just happened to score more than them today.”

Five freshmen — Justin Edwards, Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, Zvonimir Ivisic and DJ Wagner — were responsible for the successful comeback, a core group that wouldn’t have been able to hold their own down the stretch earlier in the season.

“I think they’re aging rapidly,” Calipari said.

As a sign of the team’s growth and maturity, he pointed at a 3-pointer by Edwards with 1:25 remaining that foiled Arkansas’ chances to pull off an upset as the turning point in the contest.

“What about what Justin Edwards did today? Let’s think about it,” Calipari said of Edwards, who scored 10 points, including six in the final three minutes. “He showed unbelievable confidence in himself and it didn’t come from me. The kid lives in the gym that pull up that three. I mean, that was the game. And I hadn’t played him for a lot of minutes.”

While leading scorer Antonio Reeves led the Wildcats with 22 points, Edwards, Wagner, Dillingham, Sheppard, Ivisic, and Aaron Bradshaw combined to score 81 points. Most of the scoring — 54 points — came from the bench. Wagner, who sparked the UK offense early with back-to-back 3-pointers, finished with a career-high 19 points. Dillingham and Bradshaw had 15 points each, followed by Ivisic with 12 (and nine rebounds). Sheppard and Edwards had 10 points apiece.

Bradshaw wasn’t on the floor down the stretch, but his minutes were significant. Bradshaw’s 15 points was his highest total since scoring 12 in a win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 6 in Nashville.

“Aaron played really well for me as a coach. I get as much enjoyment out of out of that kind of stuff as I do anything,” Calipari said.

Although on the bench in the final six minutes, Bradshaw said the team’s determination and grit helped the Wildcats get over the hump.

“Effort, that’s what we just had to put into it — the most effort we can (because) we don’t want to lose and that’s not our thing,” he said. “We don’t like losing. So the guys did what they do (at the end).”

Khalif Battle scored 34 points for the Razorbacks, his third straight 30-point game. Arkansas shot 53% from the floor, outscored Kentucky 48-38 in the paint and was 21 for 21 from the free throw line in the second half. Tramon Mark added 23 points and Jeremiah Davenport added 14, including two 3-pointers in a 20-7 run that had given Arkansas a seven-point lead.

“I thought we played extremely hard. We had a couple live-ball turnovers that were critical,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “I’m not sure I have had a team that went 27 for 28 from the line, had 10 steals, 13 assists and shot 53% and lost.”