Kentucky faced multiple obstacles at Texas A&M on Wednesday night. The game was a sellout. The crowd was roused by a “white-out.”
And the Aggies saw their first game against a ranked opponent as a chance to validate its 15-2 start to the season.
“I think this win will be a big win if we beat Kentucky …,” guard Andre Gordon said Tuesday. “This will put us on the map a little bit more.”
Teammate Tyrece Radford agreed.
“You just can’t be overly hyped,” he said, “but it’s something to be hyped about.”
For Kentucky, it seemed like what could go wrong did go wrong before it toughed out a 64-58 victory in College Station.
Sahvir Wheeler committed a career-high eight turnovers. UK shot poorly.
Yet, the game featured what UK Coach John Calipari had been saying for weeks his team needed to experience: a possession-by-possession test of nerves and composure.
Coming into the game, Kentucky had a 0-3 record in games decided by a single-digit margin. Texas A&M had won six of seven such games.
Kentucky prevailed by outplaying Texas A&M down the stretch. Texas A&M had only two baskets in the final six-plus minutes. Jacob Toppin’s dunk with 6:18 left gave UK the lead for good at 56-54. But it stayed a one-possession game the rest of the way, except for a 90-second blip in which UK led 60-56.
Kentucky, 15-3 overall and 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference, snapped A&M’s eight-game winning streak. Wheeler led UK with 12 points.
Oscar Tshiebwe’s eight points included two free throws with 2.2 seconds left. He also grabbed 13 rebounds.
UK won despite Kellan Grady (one of nine) and Davion Mintz (one of five) combining to make two of 14 three-point shots.
A&M, which missed all 15 of its three-point shots in the second half, fell to 15-3 overall, 4-1 in the SEC and 10-1 at home.
Kentucky trailed 35-30 at halftime. For those who believe in moral victories, being only down five points fit the description.
The first half saw UK’s best two three-point shooters combined to make none of eight attempts. Grady missed five times. Mintz missed three.
As for the point guards, Wheeler committed four turnovers. A&M’s trapping defense in the half-court seemed to unsettle him.
TyTy Washington picked up his second foul with 14:57 remaining in the first half and played only briefly thereafter.
Kentucky made only a third of its shots (12 of 36). The Cats made just one of 11 three-point shots. Wheeler, who had made only five of 25 shots from beyond the arc this season, accounted for UK’s only three-pointer.
Texas A&M also met its stated goal of limiting Kentucky’s transition offense. The Cats had only six points off a fast-break.
“Kentucky is the fastest team in the country …,” A&M Coach Buzz Williams said on Tuesday. “We’ll have to make sure we play with incredible discipline on both ends of the floor trying to slow (Kentucky) down (and) keep (Kentucky) out of the middle of the floor. …
“Our volcano rock for the game is can we slow them down in transition.”
After saying that 46 percent of UK’s shots had come in transition, Williams said, “That’s, like, Indy 500-type fast.”
Despite all that, Kentucky only trailed by five points at the half.
A late rush got UK back in the game. The Cats trailed by as much as 13 (29-16) as late as inside the final six minutes.
A&M made only three baskets in the final six minutes as Kentucky closed with a 14-6 run. Wheeler accounted for seven of those points, beginning the run with the three-pointer with 5:22 left and then capping it with a driving basket inside the second to set the halftime score.
Kentucky’s momentum carried over to the second half. UK scored the first five points to tie the score at 35-35. Wheeler’s second three-pointer, which equaled the season high two he made against Duke, tied it with 18:32 left.
A&M did not waver. The second of back-to-back layups put UK behind 41-36 and prompted a timeout with 16:11 left.
Grady made his first three-point shot with 14:33 left. It brought Kentucky within 43-41.
With 9:01 left, Grady gave Kentucky its first lead. After missing a three-point shot for the seventh time in eight attempts, the long rebound found its way to Grady, A behind-the-back dribble got him in the lane for a shot to put UK ahead 49-48.
Setting the stage for last-act drama, the teams traded the lead four times in the next two-plus minutes.
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 2 Auburn
When: 1 p.m. Saturday