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Win a relief for Cats, but surging Arkansas will provide another challenge

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

What a difference a win made for Kentucky.

“The whole mood changed the day after the win (over Alabama),” Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “It felt like we haven’t gotten a win in forever. Now it’s time to put a winning streak together.”

The Wildcats’ 81-71 win over Alabama last Saturday snapped a rare four-game winning streak and was Kentucky’s first victory this month. The win kept the Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) in contention for at least a share of the league title and one of four elusive top spots in the league standings.

Kentucky currently Is tied with Mississippi State for fourth, while Arkansas, Alabama, and Florida tied for third going into Tuesday night’s games. For Kentucky, a much-needed win over the Crimson Tide was a long time coming. The Wildcats hadn’t won a game since posting an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30 at Rupp Arena.

Wenyen Gabriel and Kentucky will try to keep its winning streak going Tuesday night at Arkansas. the Wildcats are coming off an 81-71 win over Alabama last Saturday at Rupp Arena. (Tammie Brown/Kentucky Today)

“It helped us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We just had to win a game. Again, you start with Tennessee, we had a lead late and gave it up. We go to Missouri, they beat us pretty good. We have a chance to win at (Auburn). We had a lead with five, six minutes to go and give it up. Texas A&M hit us pretty good. We had a chance with Florida late. Like I told them, I wish I could talk them through an experience but you can’t. They’ve gotta go live the experience themselves. They’ve got to go through it and learn from it. They’ve got to grow from it. They’ve gotta get stronger from it. You can’t skip steps with them. It is what it is.”

And it’s been a slow process for Kentucky, which lost four in a row for the first time in Calipari’s nine-year tenure as coach of the Wildcats.

“We’ve thrown everything at these kids, and it’s all experiences,” Calipari said. “Now, we have to go to a team that plays really aggressive, plays really physical, bumps and grinds, moves the ball, shoots threes, flies for rebounds, has unbelievable senior guard play. Has a young, big kid that can play. It’s another experience for us.”

Although losses to Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Auburn were tough to swallow, Gabriel said the losing streak wasn’t in vain.

“At the end of the day, we’ve all been learning,” he said. “I think the losing streak helped us find a better focus.”

Instead of remaining in the moment following the win over Alabama, Kentucky braces for Arkansas, which is one of the hottest teams in the league. The Razorbacks (19-8, 8-6) have won four straight, including a 94-75 win over Texas A&M last weekend in Fayetteville. Arkansas, traditionally a tough team at home, has compiled a 14-1 mark this season at Bud Walton Arena.

“It’s about like every other team we play – on the road and they’re all sold out,” Calipari said. “They’re all big games and, ‘This is it, we’ve gotta win this game.’ I would expect them to play and get after it. … It’s going to be a hard one. Again, they’re starting four seniors, we’re starting five freshmen. It’s a hard game for us, but it’s another chance to learn and grow and see where we are. Competitive fight. You know, playing teams that understand what it takes. And like I said, they’re playing as well as they’ve played these last four to five games.”

The Razorbacks have gotten a big lift recently from freshman forward Daniel Gifford, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday. Gifford averaged 18.5 points per game in double-digit wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M.

“They’re going to play a fast game. They’re going to shoot a lot of 3s. The young, big kid (Daniel Gafford) has really gotten better. The last five games he’s playing his best basketball, which makes them a different kind of team, even though they still have four seniors. They’re experienced. They’re good. They’re a really good basketball team.”

Although the Razorbacks will be a challenge for his squad, Calipari said he’s focused on his own team’s improvement.

“I’m just concerned about us being in a mode, that desperate mode,” he said. “I’m worried about watching and just saying, OK, are we moving into the roles that we’ve now defined for every player? Are guys accepting how they individually have to play for their team? Are they losing themselves in the team? If they are not playing great individually, is that really affecting their team play? Stuff that we at this point in the year, you have to get by. You have to get by all that stuff. So I’ll be watching, but, you know, like I said, my team is getting better.

“It’s a sellout. It’s cup night. You know, red out, white out, whatever they’ll have. You know, they’ll have students hanging out the night before, you know, sleeping in tents. That’s what happens to us. So we understand they are going to play as good as they play. They are not going to give us the game, so you’ve got to go and say we are going to have to try to take a game from seniors, and it’s a hard task.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Arkansas, Tuesday, 9 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

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

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