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Kentucky bracing for a tough encounter as they hit the road to face struggling Tigers in Columbia


By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

The road doesn’t get any easier for Kentucky.

The Wildcats (21-4, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) are in the midst of a three-way battle with LSU and Tennessee for the top spot in the conference with six games remaining in the regular season. Coming off an 86-69 win over No. 5 Tennessee last weekend, Kentucky takes on struggling Missouri Tuesday night in Columbia.

“It’s another tough week,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on the Southeastern Conference teleconference Monday. “This league is as good as any in the country and everybody you play has a chance to win. I don’t care what the matchup is. You’re not walking in thinking, ‘Yeah, we can get this one.’ I’m happy with how we played last game defensively, but we’ve played a couple of bad halves defensively and it has cost us.”

Freshman Ashton Hagans turned in a strong performance in Kentucky’s upset over No. 1 Tennessee. (Kentucky Today/Tammie Brown)

The Wildcats climbed to fourth in the Associated Press Top 25 Monday after splitting a pair of games against the Tigers and Volunteers. The Tigers (12-12, 3-9) lost to Mississippi 75-65 last weekend after dealing Arkansas a 79-78 setback last Tuesday on their home court. Despite Missouris struggles Calipari said the Tigers are capable of pulling an upset and haven’t given up on the season.

“Whatever their record is there were two or three other games they had a chance to win,” Calipari said. “They played at Tennessee and had their chances and did a great job in a hostile environment. We know that they’re good enough to beat us. We know that. Having their best player go down early, affected their team. But they’ve recovered from that.”

Following a disappointing 73-71 loss to LSU last week, Kentucky led from start to finish and bumped Tennessee from the top ranking Saturday. The loss to the Tigers served as a wake-up call for Kentucky, which improved to 4-0 in bounce-back games this season.

“I think every team needs it more than once a year,” Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said. “I talk about being a young team, but every team has to. It’s normal. You’re human. You’re going to have lapses, and our job as coaches is to make sure that we tell you what you’re about face.”

Kentucky senior Reid Travis admitted the final stretch of the regular season “is tough” but added the Wildcats are anxious to compete for a regular-season title.

“Everyone is excited about what we have on the horizon,” he said. “For us, it’s one game, one week at a time. So, I’d say there’s a lot of excitement. I think that’s what really helps everybody is that we’re all in here trying to get better, working hard every day. So you can really get over that mental fatigue when everyone has so much excitement about what’s about to come for us in the next couple of games, next couple of months.”

While the Wildcats got back as a team against the Volunteers, point guard Ashton Hagans scored nine points and added seven assists in the win over Tennessee. Hagans also added a pair of steals on the defensive end of the court. Calipari showed past video of Hagans following his outing against LSU in an effort to get his attention.

“He was just showing the videos, then he would stop after every steal,” Hagans said. “Then, everybody turned around and started looking at me. And (Calipari) was like ‘who was that’ and they would say, ‘that’s Ashton with the braces,’ something like that. That’s all he was talking about.”

Payne added Hagans is at his best when he’s not dealing with freshman issues.

“There are times when he pouts — we have to address it,” he said. “There are times when he’s immature — we have to address it. But then there are times when he is locked in, and that has been a big difference in our team. When he’s locked in, we are really good.”

Washington Honored

For the second time this season, Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington was named SEC Player of the week by the league office on Monday.

Washington averaged 21.5 points per game in two games last week and tallied 23 points and five rebounds against Tennessee. He scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the setback to LSU. Washington is averaging 21 points, 8.1 rebounds a game during the past eight contests. He is averaging a team-high 14.8 points and eight rebounds per game.

“(I’m) so proud of PJ and what he’s done — love the way that he’s approaching the game,” Payne said. “Coach (Cal) has been really focused on him playing to a certain standard. Last six games he was unbelievable to finish games and Coach said, ‘You’re going to get rebounds, attempts, 60 percent of the time. That’s not who you are. You have to be a 90-percent attempt rebounder. Doesn’t mean you get them, but you have to be attempting 90 percent of the time.’ So as the world is giving him all this praise, Coach Cal is saying, ‘I need more.’ That’s what this is about and you see it in his play.”

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes also has noticed a difference in Washington.

“I think he made the right decision to come back to school and work more with those guys,” Barnes said. “I honestly think he is a much more improved player from a year ago.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Missouri, Tuesday, 9 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.


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