For a team that was in desperate need of a win to halt a midseason panic and quiet any talk about missing the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky’s 75-65 win over Tennessee was somewhat huge.
“I’m happy for them,” John Calipari said after the game. “I said, ‘Be happy you won. You won a game.’ ”
During Kentucky’s 38-2 march to the national championship last year there were plenty of style points earned along the way, but that won’t be the case with this team. In a season of uncertain results, one filled with inconsistencies and ups and downs, any win is a big win no matter how ugly, how close and how frustrating it can be.
“In the last seven, eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people — and this ain’t one of ’em,” Calipari said. “Every game we are going to be in is going to be a dogfight, and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accepting it, right, and coach that way.”
Kentucky (11-5, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) didn’t pull away from Tennessee on Tuesday quite like it could have at certain points in the game, but to pull out a close victory down the stretch after Saturday’s disappointing end was satisfying for a team in need of some positive feelings.
A game after surrendering a 16-1 run late in the contest against Texas A&M, UK made the crucial plays down the stretch when Tennessee took a 54-53 lead with 7:19 to play. The Cats outscored the Volunteers 22-11 once UT took that final lead.
“It feels good to finally get a close win,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We did a great job at executing on offense and that was key.”
For the second straight game, Noel did a little bit of everything, posting a ridiculous stat line of 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks four steals and two assists.
After what he described as an unfocused and “off pace” first half, Noel made the winning plays that prevented UK from losing back-to-back home games for the first time in the Calipari era.
“This was a big step for us,” Noel said. “For the last couple weeks Coach Cal has been really going back to something he calls gut time, when it’s really in crunch time of the game when we’ve really got to execute, not for us but for the team so we don’t break down and make mental mistakes. I think we did a good job of that … and did what we had to do.”
Noel did everything he possibly could to will the Cats to victory.
Minutes after a key offensive rebound, a put-back and a block of Josh Richardson into the stands, Noel came up with the sequence of the game with UK trailing 54-53. After making the first of two free throws to tie the game, Noel missed the second, grabbed his own rebound and threw down a dunk for a 56-54 lead.
A couple possessions later, with the Cats leading by two, Noel swatted Trae Golden that led to a transition 3-pointer for Julius Mays. The graduate student buried it from the left wing, and UK would never look back from there.
“He’s a tremendous player, and when he’s at his best, we’re at our best,” Wiltjer said of Noel. “If he keeps it up, we’re going to be a great team.”
The Cats had some help in closing out the game. Richardson missed a pair of free throws with his team down 71-65, including an air ball, and Golden missed a point-blank layup shortly after.
The fact that Tennessee, which is now 0-3 in the SEC play, was even in the game at that stage may be worth concern for UK fans, but the reality of the situation is the Cats are likely going to have to win a lot more games like this one.
“Last eight years we were winning 35 games a year, we were beating people by 30,” Calipari said. “This team is not capable of doing that.”
So expect more nail-biters like Tuesday, and if you’re a UK fan, hope for more clutch performances from people like Noel and Wiltjer.
Noel said he isn’t completely comfortable with being the leader in “gut time,” but he’s played like Kentucky’s best player when the game has been on the line the last two contests. If nothing else, he’s become its most valuable.
“Having close games like that, that’s the time when you’ve always got to be mentally focused and do your job for team,” Noel said.
That sure sounds like the type of leader Coach Cal has been describing this week when he’s talked about the need for everyone to buy in to trusting each other and playing for their teammates.
“That’s what we need from him,” Calipari said. “The reason he can do this is he’s really been working in practice. He’s been spending the time.”
Coach Cal said Noel got more out of the individual workouts over the winter break than any other player because he broke through a mental wall when he hit what he thought was his maximum exertion rate.
“Some other guys, in a month, their exertion level heart rates never really moved, which tells you as soon as they hit that wall, they kept stopping for a month,” Calipari said. “Nerlens, on the other hand, started in the same spot and just kept moving.”
According to Calipari, Wiltjer was also one of the most improved players from the individual sessions, and it finally showed Tuesday with a balanced, oftentimes clutch outing.
Wiltjer scored both inside and out in the first half on his way to 10 points, and then he provided the nail in the coffin in the final minutes with two straight baskets and a free throw. Believe it or not, Wiltjer even asked his head coach to run a play for him out of the game’s final timeout.
Coach Cal had no problem with the call.
“There was no surprise,” Calipari said. “I’m happy. Thank you. This is supposed to be their team.”
Noel said after Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M that it was time for the players to start taking control of the team. While one close win is too small of a sample size to determine if that’s happened, four of the next five games on the road should be a pretty good indicator.
“I think it will take a little more time,” Noel said. “We just got to really start to develop that killer mentality that when they step in this arena, we’re not giving them anything easy. I feel it’s coming, but we’ve still got some work to do to get there.”