Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win at Texas A&M

Kansas Coach Bill Self called Kentucky point guard Sahvir Wheeler “the best 94-foot player in the country, hands down.” (Alex Slitz/
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Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 64-58 win over the Texas A&M Aggies on Wednesday night in College Station:

1. Kentucky wins a Super Bowl

Kentucky is everybody’s Super Bowl. That’s what John Calipari says. Every night. Every game. Especially every road game. In 2021-22 Super Bowls, however, the Cats were 0-2. They lost 66-62 before a packed house at Notre Dame. They lost 65-60 before a packed house at LSU.

(Timeout: The 78-66 win at Vanderbilt on Jan. 11 didn’t count. Memorial Gym was far from a packed house. And the majority of those in attendance were Kentucky fans. Once again, Big Blue Nation turned Nashville blue.)

With Texas A&M 15-2 overall and 4-0 in the SEC, and Kentucky coming to town, Reed Arena was packed on Wednesday night. It was the largest crowd in the venue’s history at 14,036. And it was loud. There were special-made T-shirts for the occasion. Of course there were T-shirts. There was a white-out. Of course. “It’s always a white-out, or a red-out, or a black-out,” said Calipari afterward, joking that he had bought into T-shirt companies to get his part of the action.

And for a good portion of the game, it appeared the emotional play would work. Texas A&M led by 13 points. 25-12 with 7:23 left in the first half. Buzz Williams’ team shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half. Even when Kentucky chopped the A&M lead to five (35-30) at intermission, the Aggies held a 47-41 lead with 13:22 remaining.

And yet Kentucky fought back. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t particularly smooth. But the Cats rallied to take their first lead, 49-48 with 9:01 remaining, then made the enough plays down the stretch to secure the victory.

Did the Cats learn more from winning this tight Super Bowl game on the road than they did, say, from that 28-point blowout of Tennessee on Saturday?

Jacob Toppin’s answer: “One-hundred percent.”

2. Davion Mintz ‘was the difference-maker in the game’

That was Calipari’s comment in his postgame Zoom session.

Here’s why: Normally a sharp-shooter, Kellan Grady went 1-for-9 from behind the three-point line. Normally the catalyst behind the Cats’ offensive engine, Sahvir Wheeler turned the ball over eight times. UK came into the game shooting 50.6 percent from the floor. The Cats wound up shooting a season-low 36.2 percent against an aggressive Aggies’ defense. Kentucky was a putrid 4-for-18 from three-point range.

Mintz wasn’t a whole lot better, making just two of his seven shots. He made one of his five three-point attempts. But the sixth-year veteran scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds, made three assists and turned it over just two times in 30 minutes on the floor. His play was vital.

He got plenty of help from teammate Jacob Toppin. Keion Brooks struggled. The junior scored seven points and grabbed two rebounds. When Brooks failed to fight for a turnover in the second half, Calipari couldn’t get Toppin back in the game fast enough. And Jacob more than delivered finishing with nine points and six rebounds.

Plus, before the night was done, Toppin appeared to have guarded every Aggie on the floor. After shooting 50 percent the first half, the Aggies shot 29.4 the second. They missed 20 of their 22 three-point attempts. This after entering the game shooting an SEC-best 37.4 percent from three.

Back to Mintz. His three-pointer out of the right corner with 6:54 left gave Kentucky a 54-52 lead. It was the biggest shot of the game, said Calipari, because it gave the visitors belief.

“Our guys said, ‘Oh yeah, we can win this,’” Calipari said.

3. A good road triumph before a huge road game

Auburn is next on the Big Blue docket. Auburn is No. 2 in the latest AP Top 25, and probably should have been voted No. 1. Bruce Pearl’s team is now 17-1 overall and 6-0 in the SEC after its 83-60 rout of poor Georgia on Wednesday night.

Did we mention Saturday’s game is at Auburn Arena?

That being said, UK’s Wednesday win inside Reed Arena was a timely tune-up for what will be a wild atmosphere on Saturday. Before this Texas trip, all 14 of the Wildcats’ wins had been by double digits. Calipari’s club was 0-3 in single-digit games. No more. Kentucky did what it needed to do to win a possession-by-possession game on the road. That’s big.

“I’m glad we came away with the win, regardless of how ugly it was,” Mintz said.

Calipari has often said he loves it when his team shoots a poor percentage and still guts out a victory. I asked him if he’d rather shoot 67 percent and win by 30 at home (the 107-79 rout of Tennessee last Saturday) or shoot 36 percent and win a close game on the road?

“We shot 36 percent?” said the coach, who had thought the box score said 38 percent. “That’s even better.”

The Cats will have to shoot better than that Saturday at Auburn. But now they know they can win a tough game on the road. On to the next Super Bowl.

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