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Even Elston Turner did not see his 40-point performance coming Saturday at Rupp Arena.
“I can’t remember, can’t recall (playing like that),” the Texas A&M guard said after leading his team to an 83-71 win versus UK. “Maybe some time in high school, but this is by far the best performance I’ve ever had.”
Turner scored 40 points on 14 of 19 shooting, including six of 10 from three-point range.
Texas A&M led for much of the game, but the Wildcats rallied in the second half to take a four-point lead with 6:12 remaining. The two teams exchanged blows for the next two minutes before Texas A&M rattled off an 11-0 run with the game tied at 63 to put it away.
“What happened again, when you’re in that game and it’s four minutes to go and it’s crunch time, it’s gut time, you don’t take chances,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “So, we took a chance on their guard, left our feet, drove in, made a basket. We took a chance on Turner, who went behind a screen and we tried to flick it from him instead of just guard him. We took a chance on their post player, Alex (Poythress) got switched on him, instead of just guarding him, he tried to steal. That’s six points.”
The late-game collapse wasted what had been an impressive performance from UK in battling back from a nine-point deficit. It also wasted the best performance to-date from freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who finished the game with 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals.
There was no doubt who was the difference maker on the floor.
“If (Turner) would have scored 20, we would have won by like 15 points,” said UK sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow. “He just had 40 points tonight, and we just can’t let that happen.”
Turner averaged 15.5 points per game entering the contest, and his previous career high was 26 points. He was the first player to score 40 points in Rupp Arena since Chris Jackson scored 41 on Feb. 15, 1990, and finished five pints shy of the arena record for points in a game.
“In the NBA, coaching, obviously there’s a couple guys that would do that to you, but it college, that was like phenomenal,” Calipari said of Turner’s performance.
“One of the best performances I’ve ever been a part of I’ve ever been a part of,” said Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy.
After scoring 25 points in the first half, Turner was held without a field goal for the first 10 minutes and 25 seconds of the second half. His first field goal of the second half gave the Aggies a 53-51 lead.
With Texas A&M leading by two and just more than three minutes remaining, Turner hit a three. On the next Aggies’ next possession, he dished to Fabyon Harris, who also hit a three to ice the win.
“He’s a very good passer,” Kennedy said. “That was the play, that was the big play of the game I thought broke their back.”
“There’s four minutes, you have your chances, and now learn what you did,” Calipari said. “Accept what you did, and let’s watch the tape and learn from those last four minutes and say, ‘What happened? What did we learn from this? What do individual players learn from this?’ And then, come together.”
With five losses, and no wins versus RPI top-50 teams on their resume, the Wildcats may be in a position to start worrying about being on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Calipari and players say they’re not focused on the risk of missing the tournament.
“We’re always supposed to make it to the NCAA Tournament, so we’ve got to keep that attitude,” Harrow said.
“I think we’ll be fine, but you don’t know. You’ve got to win games,” Calipari said. “For us going forward, each game we play, we just have to worry about being the best team in the gym.”
As Saturday’s late-game collapse showed, the Wildcat still have plenty of work to do.
“It’s going to be another month before this team comes together,” Calipari said. “I just hope we are winning enough games as we learn to do this.”