Cats Take Perfect SEC Mark to Florida on Saturday
After a rough start to the season, Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his team decided to start with a “clean slate” as the calendar flipped to 2021 and Southeastern Conference play began.
So far, the plan seems to be paying dividends. The Cats are 2-0 to start conference play, with a pair of nail-biting wins under their belts. First, a double-overtime road win at Mississippi State, then a down-to-the-wire home win against Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
While those games were by no means signature Kentucky wins, they were victories and they have provided the team with confidence. Now comes an even bigger task as the Cats hit the road to face Florida at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, which is always one of the toughest places to play in the SEC.
Kentucky has had a different look in its two SEC games so far. First, after struggling a bit as the 2020 calendar year ended, forward Olivier Sarr has played much better. In his first two SEC games, Sarr is averaging 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
The most obvious difference in the Cats has come from redshirt freshman guard Dontaie Allen. After playing 20 minutes total in four games early in the season, Allen has become a key cog in the UK attack during SEC play. He scored a career-high 23 points in UK’s win at Mississippi State and he followed that with a 14-point effort in Tuesday’s win over Vanderbilt.
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Against Mississippi State, Allen was a bit of an unknown. But against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, he noticed a difference in how he was guarded.
“I noticed later against Vandy it was more of a face guard, so I’m going to have to do things to get open as far as just maybe running hard and maybe taking different routes,” Allen said. “I feel like the first team (Mississippi State) wasn’t really as prepared, but the second team (Vanderbilt) was a little more.”
Allen does realize that his presence on the floor can make a difference for his team.
“I think the big thing from my perspective is just going in the games and doing whatever it takes for the team to win,” Allen said. “I mean, as far as game planning, obviously having a shooter out there will space the floor, but at the end of the day I just want to do whatever helps the team win.”
The Cats will also get a boost with the return of Keion Brooks Jr. on Saturday. Ironically, Brooks’ last action came in UK’s game at Florida last season, when Brooks played a career-high 27 minutes and scored 10 points as the Cats rallied to win what turned out to be their final game of the season.
Assistant coach Jai Lucas tempered the expectations for Brooks as he comes back from injury.
“We’ll just kind of wait and see,” Lucas said. “He had a good practice yesterday. And it’s hard because he hasn’t been necessarily practicing. He’s been doing some conditioning and stuff like that and we’re going right into at Florida. I think that might have been his last game 10 months ago that he actually played was at Florida. I do think he’ll get in a little bit in the game and we’ll just kind of go from there. We’re not expecting much from him.”
Florida is 5-3 on the season and 2-1 in the SEC. The Gators will be coming off their first SEC loss of the season, an 86-71 setback at Alabama on Tuesday. Florida opened league play by winning at Vanderbilt 91-72 and beating LSU 83-79 in Gainesville.
The Gators remain without their best player, Keyontae Johnson, who collapsed during a game earlier this season and has not returned. Johnson was the preseason SEC Player of the Year prior to this season.
Still, Florida has plenty of firepower. Sophomore guard Tre Mann averages 14.6 points per game, while sophomore guard Scottie Lewis scores 12.3 per contest. Junior forward Colin Castleton, who stands 6-11, is scoring 11.9 points per game and grabbing 5.3 rebounds each game.
Lucas knows Florida can pose problems for the Cats.
“They’re good. They’ve got good guards,” Lucas said “They do a good job at spreading the floor and trying to create mismatches in that sense of finding somebody that they think they can attack. The big kid, the transfer from Michigan, Colin Castleton, has been playing really good. They’ve done a good job at getting him the ball. I think a big thing for us is are we going to be able to guard the ball and stay in front in one-on-one defense? So, we’ve just been preparing for that.”
The emergence of Allen, the resurgence of Sarr and the addition of Brooks have the Cats feeling good as they visit Gainesville for a tough test on Saturday.
Mintz’s Late Three Lifts Kentucky Past Vanderbilt
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Davion Mintz had seen this script before.
Two Olivier Sarr game-winning shots go in and out. Late-game droughts doom opportunities for quality wins early in the season. A tough break here and there.
“Buzzard’s luck,” the Wildcats were calling it, albeit much of it self-inflicted, resulting in one of the worst starts in school history.
Perhaps, as John Calipari had suggested and hoped, it’s beginning to even out.
After a double-overtime comeback victory at Mississippi State last weekend snapped a six-game losing streak, the Wildcats (3-6, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) squeezed out another down-to-the-wire win with a 77-74 victory over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena. Mintz hit a game-winning 3-pointer from the left corner to preserve another come-from-behind win over the Commodores, the sixth time Kentucky has rallied from a halftime deficit to defeat Vanderbilt (4-4, 0-2 SEC) during its nine-game winning streak in the series.
The Wildcats, billing the beginning of conference play and a new calendar year as a “fresh start,” will take wins any way they can get them as they try to climb out of their deep early-season hole.
“What we’ve been through this season, I don’t care if it’s a middle school team. A win is a win,” Mintz said. “It was huge for our confidence. We’re super desperate and we’re going to go out there and play like it.”
Kentucky’s confidence hung in the balance as Vanderbilt’s Trey Thomas and Maxwell Evans each had shots for the game-tying 3. Evans’ shot, on line, bounced off the front of the rim and to the back and hit the rim a third time before falling off the cylinder. Given how things had gone so far this season, everyone in UK white held their breath as Evans took the shot.
“Phew,” an exasperated Sarr said, who had to watch from the bench after fouling out with a game-high 24 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. “At that point it was like, please let us win. Don’t go in. We fought through. We stayed the course. We believed.”
It even felt like a bit personal of redemption for Mintz, whose game-winning shot from the corner reminded him of a similar attempt he had vs. Xavier, while playing for Creighton two seasons ago, that he missed.
“My heart was dropping,” Mintz said of Vanderbilt’s potential game-tying shot that would have spoiled his game winner. “They kind of experienced what we have been going through for a while.” Mintz, who finished with 11 points, was able to atone from his previous miss two seasons ago while the Wildcats attempt to do the same with their season.
UK overcame 70 points and 10 3-pointers from four Vanderbilt players alone — Scotty Pippen Jr. (18 points, eight assists), Dylan Disu (18 points, 10 rebounds, three 3-pointers), Jordan Wright (18 points, eight rebounds, three 3-pointers) and Myles Stute (16 points, four 3-pointers) — to rally from a nine-point deficit late in the first half. It’s sixth time during the nine-game winning streak vs. Vanderbilt that Kentucky has trailed the Commodores by nine or more points. It was the fifth straight game the Wildcats trailed Vanderbilt at halftime, all resulting in wins.
This time it ended the first two-game skid in Rupp Arena of the John Calipari era and prevented the first three-game losing streak in Rupp’s 45-season existence.
“We’re getting better,” Calipari said.
Two areas of particular improvement Tuesday were the turnovers and free throws. The Wildcats, who entered the game averaging 16.1 turnovers per game, one of the worst marks in the country, made just two turnovers this game, tied for the lowest program mark since committing two turnovers vs. Cincinnati in a 24-11 win on Dec. 20, 1983. That was before the shot clock.
UK also made 26 of 32 from the charity stripe, both season highs.
Sarr drew 11 fouls and was 14 of 17 from the line. He seems to have regained his confidence with a combined 38 points over the last two games. The Wake Forest transfer had just three total points vs. North Carolina and Louisville.
“I think I needed to focus on fighting and competing and just playing my game out there,” Sarr said. “No pressure. Just being locked in and having fun at the same time.”
Kentucky also got valuable contributions from Dontaie Allen, Jacob Toppin and Devin Askew, who played most of the critical minutes down the stretch to preserve the victory.
Coming off his breakout 23-point game at Mississippi State, Allen scored 14 points with five rebounds and two key 3-pointers. He has combined for 37 points, nine rebounds, nine 3-pointers and just one turnover in 64 minutes the last two games.
Calipari said Allen had some defensive breakdowns he must improve on, but as long as he continues to score and open up the court for the offense like he has, he will continue to play.
“If that’s the case and it’s even-steven, I’m probably good with you,” Calipari said. “I’m telling you, he deserves to be on that court.”
Askew pitched in with 11 points, his second straight game in double figures, and Toppin added six points, six rebounds and key defense down the stretch on Pippen, Vanderbilt’s engine.
“JT is at the right spot at the right time in every game,” Sarr said. “On defense, he takes pride in guarding the best player. He did an unbelievable job. He is doing the dirty work and it has been enough for us.”
Brooks Cleared to Return
Sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. — the only returning scholarship player who played a season ago — has been medically cleared to return to competition after missing the first nine games of the season with a left leg injury. Brooks will be in uniform Saturday at Florida and will be available to play.
Although he has been conditioning and participating with the team in non-contact drills, Thursday was his first full practice since the injury.
“Here’s the kind of person and teammate Keion is,” John Calipari said. “When he and I talked about how he would fit in with what we’ve been doing as a team, his comment was, ‘Coach, I really trust you. I’ll do whatever this team needs me to do.’
“Pretty amazing stuff when you remember that this is someone who came back as the leader of our team and the only guy who played minutes with us a season ago. All he cares about is trying to help this team win.”
Brooks averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 31 games, including six starts, in 2019-20. He shot 47.2% to go along with 13 blocks and 11 steals.
As a freshman, Brooks had five double-figure scoring games, maybe none bigger than his 10-point game at – coincidentally, given his scheduled return – Florida. In a career-high 27 minutes, Brooks helped engineer a 18-point second-half comeback with two important 3-pointers in Gainesville, Florida.
A Comeback Story Happened at Florida, Too
Although the majority of the cast is no longer in uniform the last time the Wildcats visited Florida on March 7, it was one of the great comebacks in program history.
With starting point guard Ashton Hagans not even making the trip and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley fouling out with more than 10 minutes to play in the second half, UK mounted an improbable 18-point second-half comeback and won on a late EJ Montgomery tip-in.
For a team that had big postseason hopes, won 17 of its final 20 games and won the league by three games, it ended up being the final time that team took the floor as the entire postseason was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A large contributor to that comeback is this season’s lone returning scholarship player who played last season, Keion Brooks Jr. He put together arguably his most complete effort in that win with 10 points, a career-high two 3-pointers, three rebounds and a pair of steals.
John Calipari called his name on UK’s final possession and Brooks’ runner in the lane was eventually tipped in by Montgomery to put the Wildcats up by one. A last-ditch effort by the Gators fell short.
Coincidentally, Brooks will be available for the first time this season on Saturday after doctors medically cleared him to return from a left leg injury.
The last time Kentucky won after trailing by 18 points or more came on Feb. 28, 2017, when the Wildcats rallied from 19 down at home against aforementioned Vanderbilt (25-6, 8:03 first half).
UK has won four straight vs. Florida and two consecutive games in Gainesville, Florida. Kentucky hasn’t won three straight games at Florida since 2002 to 2004.