Kentucky passes yet another early-season test with win over Saint Joseph's

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim11/21/23
John Calipari on Reed Sheppard, Justin Edwards

Kentucky once again found itself in an early hole against the shot-heavy Saint Joseph’s Hawks, down 7-2 just two minutes in. The Wildcats clawed back to tie it with 12:38 to go in the first half, then took their first lead at the midway point (20-17). They got it up to eight at the final TV timeout before the break, only to see the opposition go on an 11-3 run of its own to tie it up in the final minute.

Tre Mitchell nails a 3-pointer with 33 seconds to go to take a 3-point lead, followed by a block on the other end by the graduate transfer to hold on going into the locker room.

That was the scouting report on Saint Joseph’s. The Hawks were going to take and make shots, unfazed by the crowd or moment. This team returned 70% of its minutes from a season ago and ranked top-15 in three-point rate, nearly 40% of points coming from deep. They certainly weren’t going to go down without a fight.

They gave the Wildcats plenty of chances to fold, a trend that continued into the second half. Up nine, cut to one. Back up eight, down to a tie, then a lead change in the final minute of regulation.

Tre Mitchell putback dunk to retake the lead and pave the way for overtime in Lexington. And then he followed it up with back-to-back threes to open the extra period, enough cushion to essentially seal it.

Do you see a theme here?

Tre Mitchell leads the charge in ‘the moment’

Every time Saint Joseph’s made a big play, Kentucky responded. Big shots were followed by big shots, scoring woes balanced by stops and hard-fought rebounds. Time and time again, the Wildcats came up with answers. The resolve this program lacked at times in recent years broke through in the form of three players hitting the 20-point mark and five in double figures with a 24-9 assist-to-turnover ratio. The rebounding battle was lost 42-37 and the Hawks came up with 15 made 3-pointers overall, but in the face of adversity, Kentucky threw the final haymaker.

“A team makes 15 threes and you figure out how to win,” John Calipari said. “You make free throws, you make plays, you get rebounds down the stretch, you fight to win with a bunch of young guys. It’s perfect. You play a game that you could have lost, but you figured out how to win.”

Calipari described Mitchell’s clutch shots as ‘the moment’ while raving about contributions from DJ Wagner, Justin Edwards, Antonio Reeves, Rob Dillingham and Adou Thiero before later stressing Reed Sheppard‘s value on the floor in a scoreless effort. “It appears as though he has got to be in (at the end of the game),” he said. But the overall team mindset is what stood out over any individual performance.

“One team is playing with house money and we’re playing with, ‘We’ve got to win.’ And they never — it never fazed them,” Calipari said. “… We shot a high percentage, we only had nine turnovers — two of our guys had six of those nine — and we played a good team, a veteran team. And they did not go away.”

DJ Wagner finally breaks through

Wagner finally got things figured out after a slow start to the season, finishing with 22 points on 7-17 shooting and 7-8 from the line to go with six assists and three rebounds. He scored 10 in the second half alone, then seven in overtime — 5-9 shooting in that stretch. A few moments of tunnel vision and a questionable look on the potential game-winner to close out regulation, but the fight was there. He looked to put the team on his back and came up big more often than not in crunch time, his end-of-shot-clock left-handed layup to put Kentucky up six with 1:30 to go being the best example.

Not perfect, but it was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

“D.J. played better, just starting to see who he is,” Calipari said. “… I was so happy D.J. busted through. You want guys to feel like their hard work is paying off.”

Birthday boy goes for an efficient 20

Antonio Reeves added 20 of his own on a wildly efficient 7-9 shooting and 3-3 from three to go with five rebounds, three assists, one block and zero turnovers in 32 minutes. And he carried a lot of that scoring load early, going for 13 in the first half. He was calculated and patience with his shot selection, and it paid off with his third 20-plus-point game of the season to become the first Wildcat since Julius Randle to hit that mark in three of the first five games of the season.

And he did it on his birthday, no less.

“I just played in the flow of the game,” Reeves said after the win. “When they came to me, I just wanted to be able to knock it down. I didn’t want to take any bad shots — it was a close game. So I just tried to play within the offense.”

“Antonio made shots,” Calipari added.

Those three players became the first Kentucky trio to score 20-plus in a game together since John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson. 14 years between those two moments. Both teams equally fun to open their respective seasons.

Rob Dillingham is must-see TV (but also contributes to winning)

Rob Dillingham made an all-around impact, as well, finishing with 13 points on 5-10 shooting and 2-3 from three to go with six assists, five rebounds, one steal and just one turnover in 26 minutes. Like Reeves, Dillingham made an early impact, as well, with 10 of his points coming before the break on an efficient 4-6 shooting with two makes from deep.

He had one quick-twitch stop-and-go down the lane for a smooth lay-in at the rim, along with a ridiculous pull-up three in transition. The dude just continues to produce, giving the Wildcats five straight games in double figures to open the season.

There is a beautiful chaos to Dillingham’s game that Calipari is still figuring out how to maximize — and he’s enjoying every second of it.

“Robert Dillingham does what he does,” he said. “… I’m still trying to figure out the team. When do you let Robert go, let him go do a little bit more? We did that in points in this game. I also ran one of our grind-it-out offenses that I have not used this year, and Robert makes a shot out of it.”

Laying the foundation for a special season

It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough. And it showed a lot. Kentucky pulled off its first overtime win since knocking off Mississippi State in double-OT two seasons ago, two losses in extra periods since then.

This is not the finished product and there is plenty of room for improvement, but the Wildcats are learning to play winning basketball and doing so in a number of ways. They have won in blowouts and overcome slow starts. They’ve won grind-it-out games while also putting together dominant stretches against elite competition — the Wildcats know what it feels like to go up 14 points against the No. 1 team in the country.

We don’t even know what this group looks like with bigs. Even a single 7-footer would give us a taste of what it’s like to have rim protection and rebounding, despite Mitchell’s Herculean efforts as the one-man show down low with some help from an out-of-position Jordan Burks. Yet, here we are. Four games of single-digit turnovers while playing selfless basketball. 12 made 3-pointers for a third consecutive double-figure mark from deep, a feat that hasn’t been reached since 2016 — a five-game streak at the time. 12 makes in three straight games is also the most since 1994.

Maybe the best stat? Two Kentucky teams have scored at least 81 points in each of their first five games. One was the 1992-93 squad that won 30 games and made a Final Four, averaging 87.5 points per contest along the way.

This team is the other.

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