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Did Cats turn a corner in bounce-back win?

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UK_ND_MBB_11_cw.JPGLOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Just a day after saying his team isn't where it will be, presumably at the end of the season, the Kentucky men's basketball team took a good step in moving there.

Turning points are usually judged in retrospect, but Wednesday night's 72-58 UK win over No. 23 Notre Dame in the SEC/Big East Invitational may have been one. When Kentucky's proverbial back was all but shoved against the wall, the Cats pushed back and broke an early season slump.

"The Carolina game kind of ripped my heart out," head coach John Calipari said, "but Connecticut, we needed to get smacked. North Carolina, we learned a great lesson, didn't we? I cannot stand to lose, but sometimes only a crisis brings about change. And that Carolina game was a little bit of a crisis because of how we played."

As far as bad situations go for a young team after a disheartening loss, tensions hit critical level in the first half in Freedom Hall.

Losers of two of their last three, the Cats had the unenviable task of facing a senior-laden, undefeated Notre Dame team. Though the Freedom Hall crowd of 17,404 was clearly pro-UK, a frequent Freedom Hall visitor, Ben Hansbrough, found himself in a shooter's paradise.

Before the fans had hardly settled in their seats, Hansbrough had drilled three 3-pointers, raising his hands from his side as if they were guns coming out of holsters.

And Hansbrough kept firing.

By the time Notre Dame grabbed a 38-27 lead, Hansbrough had five 3-pointers, seven field goals in all, and 19 points. Hansbrough, who was hitting treys from NBA range, nearly knocked one down from Tayshaun Prince territory as he pulled up from just inside the SEC/Big East Invitational sticker at midcourt.

For a team that was facing the first adversity of its young season, there was a collective "uh oh" in the Derby City.

"He was incredible," Calipari said of Hansbrough. "He took one almost at half court. I thought it was in and so did he."

The Cats got back in the game late in the first half with a stingy defensive push. Guards Doron Lamb and Brandon Knight tag teamed and put the clamps down on Hansbrough, and UK went on a 13-2 run to close out the first half to tie the game at 40-40.

"We just said we're going to play him like it's a box and one," Calipari said of defending Hansbrough. "If he comes off a screen, we're going to switch and make it very hard for them."
 
Kentucky continued to lock down in the second half as Notre Dame reached a field goal drought of surreal proportions. The Fighting Irish went without a field goal for 12:24 as the Cats went on a 26-6 run after trailing 38-27.

In the second half, shots that fell in the first half for Notre Dame started to rim out. UK held the Fighting Irish to six field goals in the second half and 20 percent shooting.

"It's probably the most size we've played against defensively and length and intensity," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "It was hard for us to find stuff. ... Playing against their set defense was very hard for us tonight. That's why we missed some layups because their length distracted us around the basket."

The most remarkable part of Kentucky's victory was the composure from a team that had previously panicked in adverse situations against UConn and North Carolina.

Notre Dame was supposed to be the unflappable veteran team - the Fighting Irish started five seniors and had come back from double-digit second-half deficits twice this season - but UK was the team that rebounded from an early deficit and then held off a late Notre Dame surge.

"They made big plays, big shots," Brey said.

Terrence Jones, of course, made the biggest shots for the Cats. The freshman forward bounced back from his first poor performance against UNC with 27 points and 17 rebounds.

It was Jones' monstrous dunk over two Notre Dame forwards in the first half that ignited the 13-2 run, and it was Jones that recorded 12 second-half rebounds and scored 12 of the Cats' final 15 points, including a game-sealing 3-pointer from the corner, to hold off the Fighting Irish charge.

"Coming in, (the North Carolina game) was all I was thinking about, supporting my team and trying to do everything little thing to make up for it," Jones said.

Jones was the perfect example of the type of resiliency Kentucky will have to learn this season. When Notre Dame delivered the initial punch, and to a bigger degree, when the Cats were knocked to the floor after two of three losses, Jones and the Cats responded.

The freshman was asked how he was able to recover.

"I'd say it's pretty easy when you've got guys capable of knocking down shots (and) Brandon (Knight) being able to go to the hole when he wants and just playing with good players," Jones said.

One win certainly doesn't cure all. Depth is still a problem, Josh Harrellson still makes head-scratching fouls and Darius Miller needs to become more assertive.

But there were reasons for Kentucky fans to back away from the cliff. Stacey Poole came in and delivered off the bench, the Dribble Drive Motion Offense was nearly unstoppable, and Knight, as Calipari said, ran the club better than he has all season (20 points, five assists and scored on the bounce at will).

"There are all kinds of holes we have to plug, but I like my team," Calipari said.

Those holes?

"It's either trust, a lack of respect or chemistry," Calipari said. "I told them, we'll be fine, whatever it is. I'll give you an example: Darius is not playing as well as he could. He's playing OK. But I want you to look at him and say, 'Wow.' I want you all to look at DeAndre and say, 'Wow.'

"There is something holding them back from you seeing that. Whatever is holding individuals back - trust, respect, chemistry, whatever it is - is also holding our team back. We're still pretty good, but that's our enemy. We want to be great. And if we want to be great, something is holding us back."

Trust, respect, chemistry - whatever the case is, maybe they figured it out Wednesday night and turned a corner.

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1 Comment

I really like this team. They will get "it" b/c they've got "it". Praying the ncaa ie nuckleheads cases against athletes will free Enes which will give us a strong post prescence, we up our assists per game, and get consistant D both halves. WE played hard smart and together last nite- fun to watch...maybe only 9 turnovers?? Go CATS!

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  • coach Terry: I really like this team. They will get "it" b/c they've got "it". Praying the ncaa ie nuckleheads cases against read more
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