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Ashley Scoby: Winning games that seem destined to be losses a mark of greatness

Karl-Anthony Towns had nine points and nine rebounds Saturday, but was one of three Wildcats to foul out in the overtime win at Texas A&M (UK Athletics Photo)

Karl-Anthony Towns had nine points and nine rebounds Saturday, but was one of three Wildcats to foul out in the overtime win at Texas A&M (UK Athletics Photo)


Fans and pundits alike all say it the same way: Great teams find ways to win, even when things go wrong.

And if we’re judging this year’s Kentucky team (15-0 now after a 70-64 win at Texas A&M in double-overtime Saturday) off that sentiment, then indeed, Kentucky is a great team.

The Wildcats have seemingly found W’s under rocks and in corners the last couple weeks, and have an undefeated record to show for it. Unassuming Mississippi took Kentucky to overtime Tuesday in the conference opener before the No. 1 team in the country squeaked out a three-point victory.

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And on Saturday, Kentucky played potentially one of its worst games of the year, shooting under 30 percent from the field, and still won by six after 10 extra minutes in College Station, Texas.

Championship teams find a way, of course. And Kentucky has done so. But an objective look at the Texas A&M game would unearth several stretches that were distinctly un-championship-like for Kentucky.

The Wildcats played lethargic defense for the first half, where A&M’s patient ball-handling and efficient execution on the offensive end helped the Aggies build an 11-point lead.

The other side to that? Kentucky, of course, ended the half on an 8-0 run, and eventually took the lead early in the second half.

Offensively, Kentucky often looked confused whenever A&M threw a zone offense at it. Ball movement was stagnant for possessions at a time, and the team often didn’t look like it had any real plan of execution. If not for the Wildcats’ hot shooting from behind the arc early (triples accounted for 15 of Kentucky’s first 17 points), they would have been down by many more. A&M dominated inside (Kentucky’s normal method of attack), and outscored the Wildcats in the paint, 38-14 (20-4 in the first half).

Nowhere was Kentucky’s offensive confusion more obvious than at the end of regulation, when Kentucky took possession with about 11 seconds on the clock, and the game tied. Some frantic dribbling, lackluster passes and a long, waved-off Aaron Harrison attempt later, John Calipari finally called a timeout with 1.3 seconds on the clock.

The positive side? The Wildcats figured it out in the overtime periods, at least enough to win. Dakari Johnson made a strong move inside the paint and went up with confidence during the second overtime. He also made four straight free throws down the stretch, after Kentucky decided to pound the ball in the paint.

Kentucky was also, at first, performing poorly at the free throw line. They finished 25-35, with both Andrew Harrison and Trey Lyles bricking two in a row each during the second half. But Lyles redeemed himself with two straight makes during overtime, and Johnson made his four attempts late.

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Freshman guard Tyler Ulis made only one basket in the game, but it was a dagger-to-the-heart three that broke the game’s last tie in the second OT.

“We just gotta get better,” Calipari said. “I’ve had teams like this. I am so old that I’ve had enough teams that I’ve started like this and they get stale and they gotta get something back. You get your mojo back and then all of a sudden you come out of the gate and you start playing, you’re on a roll.

“I don’t need us to be great right now anyway. We need to be great at the end of February and March. Right now, let’s see where we are, learn about each other. We learned a lot about our team. We really did. That’s the whole thing. You’re playing this early and it’s January, learn. You win and you learn. I don’t think there are any losses right now. It’s winning and learning and that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Kentucky indeed found a way to win. They also found a way to make the result very much in doubt until the last minute.

There is a balance between playing championship basketball and playing distinctly non-championship basketball all during the span of one game. Kentucky’s “find-a-way” gene once again outweighed its “whoops-we’re-down-double-digits-to-an-unranked-team” mindset against Texas A&M on Saturday.

How the Wildcats continue to manage that balance this season will determine how much success this team can really have. And in a year where that “0” at the end of Kentucky’s record has become one of the most expectation-heavy, hope-filled ovals in the history of the program, that balance becomes even more delicate.

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York this June.

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