COLLEGE STATION, Texas – If he’s said it once, he’s said it a thousand times. Play not to lose, John Calipari has said, and chances are you eventually will.
Playing not to lose didn’t cost the Kentucky Wildcats (15-6, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday, but only because an old dog showed some young Cats how you play to win.
Given a second chance in overtime to close the game out, Julius Mays iced UK’s 72-68 win with a big shot at the end of regulation and clutch free throws in overtime, avoiding what would have been UK’s most heartbreaking loss to date.
“Everything’s a dogfight,” Coach Cal said. “We made plays down the end that … were incredible.”
Incredible, but not in the good sense.
Leading by eight points with 3:47 to play in regulation, Kentucky committed costly turnovers down the stretch that gave Texas A&M a chance to win in overtime.
Just seconds after Kyle Wiltjer was tied up for a jump ball, Elston Turner, who burned the Cats for 40 points in the first meeting in Rupp Arena, forced overtime with a game-tying jumper with 1.4 seconds left in regulation.
“The biggest thing is, when teams make runs at us, we just don’t have a swagger about us,” Calipari said. “We have none. As a matter of fact, we almost look defeated.”
They look defeated at times, but Mays made sure the Cats wouldn’t be defeated.
The transfer from Wright State scored a season-high 19 points thanks to four 3-pointers and five clutch free throws in overtime, including three in the final 15 seconds. Contrary to the play of his young teammates, Mays didn’t falter when the game called for someone to step up and win it.
“No pressure,” Mays said. “I’ve been around college for awhile, so I’ve been in plenty of situations like that in my career.”
Nerlens Noel had a monster of a game, but Julius Mays saved UK down the stretch with some timely veteran play. His 3-pointer looked to be the game-clincher in regulation, but he made sure to end Saturday’s game with five free throws in overtime.
Mays looked like he had hit the dagger in regulation when he drilled a buzzer-beating 3-pointer with 3:47 left in the game. The graduate student received the ball at the top of the key with just a few seconds left on the shot clock, but instead of panicking, Mays pump faked, dribbled past his man and knocked down the trey.
“It was a broken play,” Mays said. “Definitely wasn’t what we were running, but hey, it came down to it. I got a good look at it. There wasn’t nobody around me and it felt good leaving my hand.”
The 3 gave UK a 60-52 lead, what appeared to be a comfortable margin, but the Cats couldn’t close out the Aggies.
Six turnovers in the final 2:07 kept the door open for Texas A&M. Calipari took the blame for Wiltjer’s final turnover that set up the game-tying shot for Turner, but most of UK’s turnovers were careless and unforced.
“We were just throwing it away,” Calipari said.
The inability to close out teams has been a big problem for the Cats all season long. Where last year’s young players had the ability to step on a team’s throat when the opposition was down, this crop of younglings puts their heads down the second adversity hits, Calipari said.
“That’s what young kids do,” Coach Cal said.
Ultimately, the Cats picked their heads up just enough to survive.
“It was over,” Mays said of the disappointment of allowing the game go to overtime. “It was behind us. Definitely not the way we wanted to go out. We would rather win in a better fashion, but things happen. Once they happen, you have to put it behind you. We couldn’t let it affect us.”
The win was UK’s fifth in its last six games, including three on the road. They haven’t all been stylish, but to keep winning and to learn how to pull out close game is important for a team this young, Coach Cal said.
“To win on the road in overtime like we did and have all those young kids playing, it’s a heck of a thing now,” Calipari said.
The victory was especially important for a team looking to build on the momentum it built with its résumé-building win at Ole Miss on Tuesday.
The Cats had appeared to turn a corner a couple weeks ago with the win at Auburn only to melt down at Alabama the next game later. UK wanted to avoid a similar letdown Saturday, and though it wasn’t a giant step forward, it wasn’t a costly step back either.
“We just said we got to keep going, we’ve got to build on it,” freshman forward Nerlens Noel said. “This is the part of the season where we really want to break through and establish how we want to play and who we want to be in March.”
Noel played like someone who is gearing up for the end of the season. He continued his dominant league play with a career-high 19 points and 14 rebounds, his third career double-double.
After taking just one field goal in the game at Ole Miss, Noel took advantage of single coverage in the post and hit seven of his 10 field-goal attempts.
Turner had another shot at the end of overtime to tie it again, but the Cat killer’s second game-tying attempt didn’t go down.
“It felt better than the shot I hit to send it to overtime,” Turner said. “It’s a heartbreaker when it goes in and out. It was halfway in and halfway out. That’s how the game goes sometimes.”
Turner was held in check for most of the night thanks to Mays’ relentless defense. The third player to ever score 40 points or more at Rupp Arena got 21 Saturday night, but it took him 23 shots to do so. The Cats found out firsthand in the first game that Turner likes to go to his right, so the Cats made him drive left as often as they could Tuesday.
“He got loose a few times and made some big shots, but as far as an all-around game, I think we did well,” Mays said. “I think he shot a lot of shots to get his points. We put a lot of pressure on him.”
It wasn’t a win the Cats will hang their hat on at the end of the season, but for a coach who likes to win and knows how important it is to grind out games, Calipari was ultimately pleased to get another W.
“We’re winning games, figuring out how to win,” Coach Cal said. “I like that we’re young and a have a chance to be really good. I wish they were coming faster, but I also want them to enjoy wins. I just don’t know when the last time a team this young goes on the road and wins. You’ve got to tell me.”