There are wins and then there are WINS. We knew No. 1 Tennessee coming to town would inspire Kentucky’s best effort and an electric atmosphere at Rupp Arena, but I’m not sure any of us expected a 17-point thumping. On the taped up shoulders of PJ Washington, Kentucky soared to an 86-69 win over Tennessee tonight, the biggest win over a No. 1 ranked team in program history.
The victory not only proved that Kentucky is a legitimate national title contender, it reestablished a pecking order in the SEC that had gone a bit awry. That “Orange is the new Blue” narrative ESPN’s been pushing? PJ Washington swatted it to the rafters along with Tennessee’s 19-game winning streak.
Let’s talk about it because, if you’re a Kentucky fan, there’s nothing more you’d rather do.
PJ Washington led the way
We knew from the first half of last year’s game in Knoxville that PJ Washington was capable of shutting down Grant Williams. Cramps robbed PJ of the second half of that game, but tonight, he was a machine, scoring 23 points off 9-12 from the floor and anchoring Kentucky’s offense. Last year, Williams admitted that PJ got into his head, and PJ did it again tonight, having his way with Tennessee’s bigs. When the ball was in his hands, PJ could not be stopped, and spurred his teammates to do the same.
One more thing PJ swatted to the rafters: the narrative that Kentucky players who aren’t one-and-dones are failures. PJ was projected to be a first-round pick last year, but by returning to school and working on his game, he’s inching into lottery territory. As Calipari constantly says, when PJ plays like this, he’s among the best in the country.
Reid did what he came here to do
Last year, Calipari complained that Tennessee’s players pushed his guys around, but tonight, the roles were reversed. The Cats owned the middle with 36 points in the paint to Tennessee’s 20 and winning the rebounding battle 39 to 26 in large part because of Reid Travis. Reid finished with 11 points and 8 rebounds, a stat line that doesn’t begin to describe his impact on the game. This is the game Reid was brought here for, and because of him, Kentucky was the most physical team on the floor. After the game, Cal said Reid battled so hard he had to get an IV in the locker room.
“The difference maker in the game for us was Travis,” Calipari said. “Now his numbers, 11 and 8, and you can say what you want, but he was a beast against another beast. Like it negated that. You’re not going to dominate us.”
Ashton Hagans bounced back
Kentucky’s dominance in the post was crucial tonight, but the matchup of the game was Jordan Bone vs. Ashton Hagans. The freshman busted out of his slump in a big way, finishing with nine points, seven assists, and only one turnover in 36 minutes. January Ashton is back, and as a result, the Cats fired on all cylinders, moving the ball crisply and controlling the tempo while holding the Vols to 28 percent from three.
“Ashton today played like he had been playing,” Cal said, telling reporters how he had the team look at tape of Hagans’ performance vs. North Carolina to remind them how great he can be. “For two games he went downhill and then it affected us the last game. And in this game he came back.”
Tyler Herro was fantastic
If you had to guess which player finished tonight’s game with a double-double, would you guess Tyler Herro? Probably not, but Herro was fantastic tonight, scoring 15 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Herro’s still struggling a bit with his shot at Rupp, hitting only 3-11 from the floor, but continues to do all the other things to help his team win, such as skying for rebounds and diving after balls. He played so well I’ll forgive his first missed free throw since the North Carolina game.
Welcome back, Keldon Johnson
For Kentucky to beat Tennessee, they needed a huge game from Keldon Johnson; the freshman delivered in thrilling fashion, doing his best Tayshaun Prince impression with three big threes in the first half. It hasn’t been an easy month for Keldon, but he proved he’s worthy of the spotlight, finishing with 19 points. Build on that, Keldon.
Nothing motivates like a loss
Did Kentucky overlook LSU? That seems like a crazy thing to say about the No. 19 team in the country, but with No. 1 Tennessee coming in, John Calipari said a loss to the Tigers was exactly what his team needed to refocus.
“I hit them right after the game with LSU and just said, hey, that was a tough loss, but you know what, we needed it. Because our team is changing, we’re not the defensive team that we have been. We have individuals changing how they were playing when they were successful. We need to get it back. We need to go back to what we were, and you know what, sometimes you got to get knocked in the head to know that. So the loss to LSU probably helped us win this game.”
If you had to choose between wins over LSU or Tennessee, which would you pick? Thought so.
All is right in the world again
It’s not every day that Kentucky hosts the No. 1 team in the country. The last time it happened was 2007, an 86-77 loss to North Carolina. The Cats’ last win over a No. 1 team? 2011 vs. Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament. So, today was big. From College GameDay in Memorial Coliseum to a late tip in Rupp, the lead up to the top five showdown with Tennessee was exhilarating, but exhausting.
That’s why it was so great that the Cats came out and stomped the Vols, the exclamation mark the fan base has been begging for. On nights like tonight, Kentucky Basketball can’t be beat, a stroke of reassurance as we head into the final stretch of the season.