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Kentucky makes decisive statement with win over in-state foe Cardinals, 71-58, in Louisville Saturday

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

LOUISVILLE (KT) — Kentucky didn’t overlook Louisville and simply took care of business Saturday, posting a 71-58 win over the Cardinals, giving Big Blue Nation one more reason to trust the process.
 
A season-opening 118-84 loss to Duke in the season opener, coupled by an 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall earlier this month, sowed seeds of doubt within a small segment of the Kentucky fan base, but Wildcats coach John Calipari and the players never wavered.
 
“We don’t pay much attention (to the negativity),” said Kentucky guard Tyler Herro, who led the Wildcats with a career-high 24 points and was named the Most Valuable Player by the Bluegrass Sports Commission. “Coach always says every day is a process and we’re just building for March every single day.”

UK’s Ashton Hagans slings ball past Louisville’s Khwan Fore. (Kentucky Today/Robin Cornetet)

Calipari was glad to see his team perform well in their first realistic road game of the season.
 
“It was a good effort and a good fight,” he said. “It was a game where you knew you were going to have to come in and battle. It’s nice to be in games where the other team has as much to lose as we do. Ninety percent of our games, the other team has nothing to lose — including the last game (against North Carolina), both teams had something to lose.”  
 
Although not as lopsided as last year’s 90-61 drubbing by the Wildcats, Kentucky (10-2) proved it was capable of winning a slow-down affair against the Cardinals on their own home court in front of a hostile environment. Even though last year’s result wasn’t a factor, the Wildcats knew the importance of playing well against its in-state rival.
 
“They were talking and saying, ‘beat the Cats,’ talking and ready to go,” Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans said. “We were talking about this game all week, getting prepared and getting the game plan going and the whole team was ready and pumped for this game.”
 
Hagans said the schedule upgrade during the past two weeks has helped the Wildcats pick up the pace and given Kentucky once more reason to focus on the here and now. They got the first signature win of the season against North Carolina and followed that up with a double-digit win over the Cardinals.
 
“It has just made us want to go harder and the next opponent we have gets tougher and it gets tougher as the season goes along,” he said. “We’ve been working in practice (getting better) on the defensive end. That’s something we’re getting better at (each game).”
 
Overall, Calipari said the Wildcats are just “getting better and better” in all phases of the game and the ability to withstand adversity on the road is indicative of the team’s improvement since the season-opener nearly two months ago.
 
“It just takes time and it’s a process,” Calipari said. “The biggest thing is me trying to figure them out.”
 
Surprisingly, Kentucky got to the rim with ease against a Louisville team that had a reputation of making things hard for teams to create and score in the post.
 
Once inside the post, Kentucky capitalized and scored 42 points in the lane and also used timely shooting by its three starting guards — Ashton Hagans, Herro and Keldon Johnson. Herro was nearly flawless from the field and made 10 field goals on 13 attempts, including four of his team’s six field goals from long range. He added five rebounds, including four on the defensive end of the court.
 
“We drove the lane a couple of times (early in the game) and I was like, ‘holy geez, maybe we can drive these guys,” Calipari said. “I didn’t we could. My issue was, they were going to drive (on) us and we started playing. (Tyler) got by a guy, Keldon got by a guy and then we opened up the offense and played a little different than we’ve been playing. … There was a lot of good stuff than came (out of this game).”
 
Calipari’s biggest concern is scoring droughts, which weren’t as top-heavy against the Cardinals.
 
“We’ll go through a two- or three-minute lapse,” Calipari said. “Some of it is letting up and acting like you won and others are (because of) decision-making. I’ve got a good team and I’ve had a good team.”
 
Hagans, also established a career-high with 11 points, combined with three assists and three steals. Overall, the three guards combined for 50 points.
 
Kentucky is riding high going into the new calendar year, but Calipari knows what lies ahead as the Wildcats begin Southeastern Conference play on Jan. 5 at Alabama.
 
“Whew,” Calipari said. “The whole league is like, ridiculos and we’re playing the top five teams twice,” he said. “Everybody is really good. It is what it is. I told them after the game we have nine more of these, just like this. … This team is going to do well and let’s go have fun with it.”
 
The Wildcats did just at the expense of their in-state rivals.
 
Gametracker: Kentucky at Alabama, 1 p.m., Jan. 5. 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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