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Cats battle through Morehead State's bumps in needed test

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Archie Goodwin hit 12-of-17 free throws en route to a career-high 28 points against Morehead State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Archie Goodwin hit 12-of-17 free throws en route to a career-high 28 points against Morehead State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Not able to travel home for the holiday and not wanting to risk their health, the Kentucky Wildcats likely won't be participating in any backyard football games after a Thanksgiving meal at John Calipari's house.

Instead, they played the closest thing to football you're likely to see on a basketball court on Wednesday night.

Visiting Morehead State challenged Kentucky from the opening tip, playing high-pressure man-to-man defense that felt at times more like bump-and-run coverage. The young Cats' response - at least initially - was not good.

"We started the game shooting all jump shots, because it was the easiest thing to do," Calipari said. "You gotta give Morehead credit they just came after us, got up under us, got body to body, hand checking."

Former Wildcat Sean Woods figured his more veteran team - rated 21st nationally in experience by kenpom.com - would be able to throw UK off its game with the approach. He was proven right.

"They came out with a lot more intensity that we anticipated they were going to come out with and that was the reason we played the way we did," freshman guard Archie Goodwin said.

After Kentucky took an early 6-0 lead, Morehead State surged, scoring 16 points in a row. After trading baskets, the Eagles eventually took a 23-12 lead on a Milton Chavis 3-point, prompting Calipari to call a timeout. He had seen his team settle for one too many fade-away jumpers.

"You're either a man or you're sitting down, because they're coming after your face, so go at the rim or sit," Calipari said.

His other message was to get the ball to the two players he knew would be unafraid and able to heed his demands: Goodwin and Alex Poythress.

"We said, 'We're posting Alex and we're posting Archie,' " Calipari said. " 'The rest of you dudes get out of the way.' "

Goodwin and Poythress would combine to score all but four points in a 16-4 UK run that turned an 11-point deficit into a one-point lead, and it wasn't just during that 4:10 stretch that the two freshmen dominated. Goodwin had a career-high 28 points to go with six rebounds while Poythress had 20 points and eight boards as the Cats came away with an 81-70 victory.

"They were punching us in the mouth and we were trying to punch them in the mouth," Poythress said. "All in all we won the game so that's all that matters. Not literally (punching), but yeah."

It never came to blows, but that was about the only physical contact that didn't take place in Rupp Arena. Morehead State committed 32 fouls leading to 41 free throws - UK would make 31 of them. Two players - Devon Atkinson and Kahlil Owens - fouled out as Goodwin and Poythress tirelessly attacked the rim.

"It was a very physical game," Goodwin said. "Probably the most physical game we've had. They did a lot of fouling as you can see. I shot 17 free throws, so a lot of fouling went on. It was just something that we needed. It was a good test for us and we passed it."

The fact that Goodwin passed a physical test should come as no surprised. Even before he scored 12 of his points from the foul line on Wednesday night, he had shown himself willing to not only absorb contact, but seek it out. He had attempted 22 free throws entering the Morehead State game and is now averaging 9.8 free-throw attempts per game. At his current rate, he would need just 29 games to eclipse Kenny Walker's single-season school record of 284 free throws attempted.

"I'm not afraid of contact at all," Goodwin said. "Drawing contact is a big part of my game so I can get to the foul line a lot or maybe get and-ones. That's something that, being an attacker, you have to want. You have to want contact."

Outside of Poythress, adopting that mentality is a work in progress for this team.

Early in UK's national championship season - particularly after Old Dominion hung tough with the Cats in a hard-fought game - the book on the Cats was to body them up and not let them overwhelm you with talent and athleticism. If Morehead State's game plan is any indication, history is about to repeat itself.

"How did people play us last year?" Calipari said. "They played us exactly the same way. Now what I see is that's how everybody is going to play us. You've got to mush and hope it's a day that they're not getting low and they're not getting through bumps and we bail out on shots."

For that reason, the challenge the Eagles presented on this night is exactly what Calipari wanted for his team.

"You have to understand, I'm learning about my team and they've got to be thrown in situations like this," Calipari said. "We need another team to play a zone the whole game. We need another team to do what this team does, foul you and get up into and grab you."

At this point in the season, Coach Cal will take a win by 11 - or on this night, a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal - over a blowout.

"It's good for us," Calipari said. "It's what this team needs. There are games you may be up 25, but what do you learn other than okay we got stats and nice stats and all? This is how you learn.  Let a team come in and bang you around and do their thing."

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