Kentucky's all-freshman lineup sealed the comeback win vs. Arkansas

On3 imageby:Tyler Thompson03/02/24


Would you believe me if I told you that Kentucky came back and beat Arkansas with Antonio Reeves, certified Razorback killer and the team’s leading scorer, on the bench? Bizarrely, that’s what unfolded on a wild afternoon at Rupp Arena, where an all-freshman lineup saved the Cats from what would have been a very bad loss.

Kentucky was down by as many as nine vs. Arkansas in the second half. With 5:42 to go, the Cats had whittled that margin to two, 90-88. John Calipari put Justin Edwards in for Tre Mitchell, leaving an all-rookie quintet of Edwards, DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, and Zvonimir Ivisic on the floor. The freshmen outscored Arkansas 23-12 the rest of the way en route to the 111-102 win.

Rob Dillingham was the main catalyst for Kentucky’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the second half; however, Justin Edwards was equally big in the final stretch, scoring eight points and grabbing three steals to help seal the win. John Calipari mentioned him first when asked about the all-freshman lineup in the final minutes.

“I told the team, I only subbed Antonio [Reeves] for one reason: he hadn’t been subbed. We had 7:50 to go. Give him a minute or two, and then I’ll put him back in. Tre [Mitchell] and Adou [Thiero] were playing okay but I wanted to get Justin [Edwards] at four.

“So I just looked, I said, ‘Justin, you go to four,’ and all of a sudden, the game changes. So now I’m not going to sub. And we did have five freshmen in and came back and did pretty good.”

Several freshmen had big performances to help the Cats win today. Aaron Bradshaw had an amazing first half, finishing with 15 points, his most since putting up 17 in Kentucky’s win over Penn in early December. Zvonimir Ivisic once again shined in extended minutes. Dillingham going nuclear was obviously significant. However, Calipari kept coming back to Edwards throughout his postgame remarks. He brought him up after a lengthy aside about the highs and lows of losing.

“The biggest thing for me: what about what Justin Edwards did today? Now think about it. I looked at him and I said are you okay to go. Yeah, I’m good. He showed unbelievable confidence in himself. And it didn’t come from me. The kid lives in the gym. That pull-up, that three. I mean, that was the game.”

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Calipari acknowledges defensive issues

Kentucky got the win today, but defense is still an issue. Arkansas’ 102 points were by far the most the Razorbacks have scored all season. The Hogs hadn’t totaled more than 75 points in a game since January; they hit that mark with over nine minutes to play today in Rupp Arena.

It’s amazing how much better this squad is when they’re locked in defensively, like at the end of the first half and the end of the game. Arkansas was 12-19 from the floor in the second half with 7:50 to go; they would make only 3-12 the rest of the game. John Calipari chalked some of that up to the Razorbacks being tired, and said what we’ve all come to accept: Kentucky’s just going to have to outscore some teams.

“To end the half, we had four stops in a row, which is how we got up, but again, they’re coming at us, we’re coming at them. And there are going to be games, folks, that we’re just going to have to outscore them. I mean, are you watching these games? We may just say, you know, what, they’re going to get 100, let’s get 105. And that’s now, watching me over the year, that’s not who I am.”

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