In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team’s postseason run,CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK’s journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.
NEW ORLEANS – Three months ago, Kentucky escaped a regular-season matchup with Louisville in spite of making less than 30 percent of its field-goal attempts.
Along with 32 made free throws, the biggest reason the Wildcats managed a win in spite of their worst shooting effort of the season was a dominant performance on the glass. Against the smaller Cardinals, UK owned an astounding 57-31 rebounding edge, outscoring U of L 20-6 on second-chance points.
Louisville flipped that on its head in a Final Four rematch, grabbing 19 offensive rebounds en route to outrebounding UK 40-33. Thanks to 57.1-percent shooting from the field, the end result was almost identical (69-62 on Dec. 31, 69-61 on Saturday), but the Cats will need to rectify those issues heading into a national title game matchup with a Kansas frontline that features Thomas Robinson, Anthony Davis’ primary competition for player of the year honors.
“I guess they’ll talk about it as a team,” John Calipari said. “One, our guards are not rebounding like they need to. Second thing, I was on Darius (Miller), ‘Come on, get in there and rebound.’ ”
Louisville big man Gorgui Dieng punished the Cats with eight offensive rebounds, but the deficit had more to with a Cardinal team effort than the statistics suggest.
“I just think they all crashed,” Terrence Jones said. “They had to do something to stay in the game and they just played as hard as they can and fight. Everybody on their team went in there and tapped it or did something to get a hand on it. They were just coming up with the 50-50 balls.”
Due in large part to their offensive rebounding, the Cardinals charged back from a 13-point hole to tie the game with less than 10 minutes to play. To turn it around, Coach Cal turned to Jones.
“In the second half, he got four rebounds which basically finished off the game,” Calipari said. “I kept telling him, ‘This is your game, you’ve been in this game before.’ “
Those four rebounds actually came in the final 5:42, before which Jones had just two rebounds. With the sophomore forward leading the way, UK grabbed 12 of the game’s final 17 rebounds to cut into what once was a plus-14 rebounding margin for Louisville.
MKG makes presence known down stretch, overcomes injury scare
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was anything but quiet on New Year’s Eve against U of L. He posted career highs with 24 points and 19 rebounds, looking like the best player on the floor from the opening tip.
He didn’t get that chance in the Final Four rematch. Kidd-Gilchrist was limited to just six first-half minutes after picking up a pair of early fouls, at which he point he had more turnovers (two) than points (zero).
Though he was on the floor after halftime, his second half was similarly quiet to begin with. Through morethan 10 minutes, the only dents he had made in the box score came in the form of two turnovers, two rebounds, one point and his third foul.
When Louisville tied the game at 49, he shook to life. Kidd-Gilchrist scored four straight points to put UK back in the lead, one it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
“I didn’t feel no pressure at all, none at all,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I was confident. I didn’t feel any pressure at all.”
The only thing that threatened to slow him down was an apparent leg injury that sent him hobbling to the bench with 6:08 to play. Kidd-Gilchrist would return to the game and finish with nine points and four rebounds and said postgame that he had just “slipped.”
“I didn’t get hurt,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “I’m all good.”
Wiltjer provides first-half boost
When Kidd-Gilchrist exited due to foul trouble, Coach Cal elected to deploy a three-big lineup UK has worked on in practice in recent weeks with Kyle Wiltjer stepping in alongside Jones and Anthony Davis. With that trio in the game, UK would hardly miss a beat as the Cats built a lead as large as 10 points.
In eight minutes of playing time during the first half, Wiltjer scored five points on 2-for-3 shooting.
“I always got to be ready there for any kind of foul trouble like that,” Wiltjer said. “I was just lucky enough to go in there and play good and help my team get the win.”
Wiltjer made his most significant impact during an exchange just before halftime when U of L had made a run to cut UK’s lead to three. He took a pass from Marquis Teague and calmly buried a 3-pointer, then plucked away a Chris Smith pass and threw ahead to Doron Lamb, who was fouled and made 1-of-2 free throws.
The 3-pointer Wiltjer nailed was on his first and only attempt of the game, continuing a recent trend of dead-eye shooting from deep. Over his last 15 games, he has connected on 18-of-28 (64.3 percent) 3s. Moreover, Wiltjer hasn’t shown any need to get his legs under him when checking in as a reserve. He has connected on his first 3-point attempt in 10 of the last 12 games in which he’s attempted one.
“It’s not that tough,” Wiltjer said. “Just being confident and going in there, regardless of when I go in, just going in there and shooting it if I’m open. I’ve put a lot of work in the gym so I feel like I’m a confident shooter.”
Cats unscathed by poor free-throw shooting
The Wildcats are haunted to this day by the eight free throws they missed in just 12 attempts in last season’s national semifinal loss to Connecticut. Making a return trip to the Final Four shooting nearly 73 percent from the line, UK appeared poised to overcome those demons.
Whether it was nerves, shooting in a dome or something else, the Cats once again struggled at the charity stripe. After making 7 of 8 to start the game, UK converted just four of its last 12. The Wildcats were 11 for 20 on the game, including 1 for 7 by Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist.