Led by Dillingham and the freshmen, Kentucky came back to beat rival Arkansas in Rupp

On3 imageby:Drew Franklin03/02/24


In a game the 1990s would love, Kentucky and Arkansas played out their heated SEC rivalry with a thrilling back-and-forth contest in Rupp Arena. It was a game of runs and hot shooting on Rupp’s last Saturday of the regular season. The two teams combined for 213 points on better than 50 percent shooting from the field, with 17 lead changes and leads of at least nine points each way.

With under seven minutes to go, the Razorbacks had the edge with a seven-point lead to silence the crowd completely. That’s when Rob Dillingham flipped the script, sparking an electric Kentucky run that ultimately decided the game. Dillingham had 13 points and four assists in the second half alone. He was one of the five freshmen Calipari counted on to close it out, leaving his veterans on the bench for the last five minutes and 42 seconds.

We’ll get to the comeback and the ending in this recap of the game, but let’s start at the beginning:

Tre Mitchell returned to the lineup

Let’s start with the ongoing roster watch because it brought some good news on Saturday in addition to the win. Tre Mitchell played his first minutes since the victory over Ole Miss on February 13, a stretch of four games without the veteran forward as he recovered from a left shoulder injury suffered in that game against the Rebels. Against Arkansas, Mitchell wasn’t ready to return to his role in the starting five. Still, he played 16 minutes in his return.

John Calipari started the same five who started in the last four games:

  • DJ Wagner
  •  Antonio Reeves
  •  Justin Edwards
  •  Adou Thiero
  •  Ugonna Onyenso

Calipari made his first change less than four minutes into the game, substituting four new players–Reed Sheppard, Rob Dillingham, Tre Mitchell, and Zvonimir Ivisic–for everyone but Reeves. Kentucky trailed the Razorbacks by four when Calipari went to his bench.

Photo by Dr. Michael Huang | Kentucky Sports Radio

DJ Wagner’s shooting slump is officially over

After a monthlong stretch in which he could not hit a shot from outside (0 for 15), DJ Wagner scored Kentucky’s first points with a 3-pointer, marking a second straight game in which Wagner put the Wildcats’ first points on the scoreboard with a 3. Kentucky’s freshman wasn’t done proving his shooting slump is behind him with one long ball. He hit a second 3-pointer on the Wildcats’ next possession to tie the game up at six, then a third 3 to give Kentucky a brief lead at 25-24 ten minutes into the game.

Wagner had a quick trigger out of halftime, too. He opened the second half with a 3-pointer, his fourth of the game, to extend Kentucky’s lead out of intermission. Wagner led Kentucky with those four 3s, finishing second in points with 19, his highest mark since November. Unfortunately, that second-half lead he gave Kentucky with a 3 did not last long.

Reed Sheppard and Aaron Bradshaw’s first-half run

With three minutes to go in the first half, Arkansas held a four-point lead over the home team Wildcats, 42-38, the visitors’ largest lead in the game up until that point. From there, Kentucky went on a run to gain control before halftime, scoring 10 straight points to go up 48-42, then another five unanswered to take a 53-48 lead into the break:

Aaron Bradshaw and Reed Sheppard sparked the first-half run with a Bradshaw layup and then back-to-back Sheppard 3-pointers. After a Reeves two and a basket by Arkansas, Kentucky closed the half with five more points from Bradshaw, including his first 3-pointer since he hit the go-ahead 3 at Florida in the SEC opener. Bradshaw scored 12 points on a perfect 4 for 4 from the field in only seven first-half minutes logged, then finished with 15 points for the game. Sheppard had 10 points with five assists in the win.

Kentucky Wildcats forward Aaron Bradshaw (2) celebrates his three pointer during their game against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Saturday, March 2, 2024 at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: © Clare Grant/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Arkansas, the team that quits, didn’t quit

With 14 losses, Arkansas is a team known to quit on games this season. In fact, before Saturday’s game in Lexington, an Arkansas fan at KSBar and Grille (there were three of them, by my count) told me to expect the Razorbacks to quit around the 11-minute mark in the second half. He (his name was Dan) was wrong because Arkansas did the opposite of quitting three-quarters of the way through the game. Actually, that’s around the time Arkansas sucked the energy out of Rupp Arena by going on its own run to take a seven-point lead. If we’re being honest, it felt like Arkansas found the confidence to pull off the upset while the Big Blue Nation wondered if the Kentucky Basketball roller coaster was headed toward another dip.

Arkansas was carried by Khalif Battle and Tramon Mark. Battle scored his game-high 34 points with 17 made free throws on 18 tries. Mark went 10 for 20 from the field with three 3s. The Razorbacks shot 53 percent from the field, 41 percent from three, and 96 percent from the foul line.

Rob Dillingham brought Kentucky back to win

Rob Dillingham looked unplayable through most of his time on the court on Saturday. His first seven and a half minutes were nothing like the second seven and a half minutes he gave in the end when he checked in and completely changed the entire afternoon in Lexington. With Kentucky down four, Dillingham cut into the Arkansas lead with an and-1, followed by two more free throws, then the go-ahead layup to give Kentucky a 91-90 edge. He was only getting started, though. He then found Justin Edwards for a dunk, knocked down two more free throws, connected with Zvonimir Ivisic on a lob, made another layup, and then another dime to Big Z. Within a matter of minutes, Kentucky had a comfortable lead it wouldn’t lose, and Dillingham stuffed the box score, as only he can do.

Five freshmen closed it out

John Calipari trusted five newcomers to finish the game despite another 20-point effort from Antonio Reeves, his fifth in a row. Calipari instead relied on DJ Wagner, Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, Justin Edwards, and Zvonimir Ivisic down the stretch because the group was playing so well, as we just discussed. Calipari explained afterward that he did not intend to rest Reeves for so long, only to get him a minute or two because he had been playing the entire game. “I said Justin you go to four and all of a sudden the game changes. So now I know I’m not going to sub. And we did have five freshmen in and came back and did pretty good.”

Pretty good? Edwards came in cold off the bench for a dunk, two steals, a jumper and a 3-pointer, finishing with 10 points in 13 minutes played. Ivisic also played a starring role in the game-winning run, with eight points and six rebounds during the comeback. For the game, Ivisic logged 12 and nine, a near double-double off the bench.

Will Levis, Wan’Dale Robinson, Marlana VanHoose, Shagari Alleyne, Meemaw, and others got in

Rupp Arena has been full of celebrities this season, and Saturday’s game versus Arkansas was no different. Will Levis and Wan’Dale Robinson were in from the National Football League, sitting along the baseline near the opposing bench.

Photo by Dr. Michael Huang | Kentucky Sports Radio

Former Wildcat Deron Feldhaus was the honorary Y in the second half, plus appearances on the big screen from former players Perry Stevenson, Jared Prickett, Kenny Walker, and Shagari Alleyne, among many others. We also saw one of the most popular fans in the KSR realm, Meemaw, up from Glasgow, Kentucky, to support her Cats. She got to meet Rob Dillingham on her way out.

And you know it’s a big game when Kentucky calls up Marlana Van Hoose for the national anthem. Marlana got the afternoon started with the Star Spangled Banner. We should’ve known it would be a great day for the Cats the moment she hit that first note.

Up next: Senior Day

Kentucky will play one more home game in Rupp Arena before next Saturday’s trip to Knoxville, then the Madness begins. Vanderbilt will come to town Wednesday night for a 9 p.m. tip after the Wildcats say goodbye to seniors Antonio Reeves, Tre Michell, Kareem Watkins, and Brennan Canada, plus an undetermined number of talented freshmen who won’t be back.

Until then, Go Cats.

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