True to his word, after UK had a sluggish start, trailing Saint Joseph’s 9-5 at the 16:26 mark, Calipari motioned for freshman guards Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard to hop off the bench and enter the game.
All seven “starters” went on to do their part Monday.
But they had to file for overtime.
Despite leading by as many as nine in the second half, and up seven with 5:32 to play, Calipari was relieved Kentucky (4-1) escaped unscathed.
“I would have liked to have won by 15, 20 (points). But you take advantage of what unfolds,” he said. “And that’s all I can tell you. We missed some shots, some free throws. (The Hawks) bang a couple of 3s, all of a sudden it is anybody’s game.
“We were kind of lucky to get to OT. We really were.”
Here’s how each member of UK’s “starting” septet contributed to the eight-point, extra-period victory.
- Starter 1: senior forward Tre Mitchell, who struggled with his shot (5 of 13 from the field) in regulation but righted himself in overtime. He connected on back-to-back 3s (his only shots in the overtime period) for UK’s first six points in the extra frame. Mitchell finished with 22 points — making 7 of 15 shots and going 4 of 6 at the free-throw line, sinking two at the charity stripe with 57 seconds left in overtime to make it a two-possession game (89-84) — and grabbed a team-best six rebounds.
- Starter 2: freshman guard D.J. Wagner, who had 22 points to equal Mitchell for the team high Monday. He also tied Dillingham and Saint Joe’s guard Xzayvier Brown for the game-high assist mark (six). Wagner’s offense came alive after intermission, combining for 17 points in the second half and overtime. And he was clutch at the charity stripe: Wagner converted 7 of 8 free throws, including his final four, which came in the last 16 seconds of overtime.
- Starter 3: senior guard Antonio Reeves, who tallied 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting (3 for 3 on 3s) and also grabbed five rebounds.
- Starter 4: freshman wing Justin Edwards, who had 12 points and made 66.7% (4 for 6) of his shots. His final bucket brought the home crowd to its feet, as he slammed home an errant layup try from Wagner with 38 seconds remaining in OT.
- Starter 5: sophomore guard Adou Thiero, who filled the stat sheet in multiple departments, with seven points, five rebounds and three steals.
- “Starter” 6: Dillingham, who provided instant offense as a reserve once again, averaging a point a minute in the early going, with 10 points within his first 10 minutes. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds and the aforementioned six assists.
- “Starter” 7: Sheppard, who, while not coming close to matching his superlative showing from last week (game-high 25 points and tying for the game high with seven assists) against Stonehill, was content to distribute instead of shoot Monday. Sheppard dished out four assists, not attempting his first shot until the 10:49 mark of the second half. He didn’t score a point. But he was a menace defensively, recording a game-high five steals. And he was the game’s plus-minus champ, registering a plus-16 rating.
“There ain’t really no such thing as ‘a starter’ on our team. … So whoever starts the game off, we just start the game off strong,” Wagner said. “It (doesn’t) matter who (is) in the game. We’re gonna cheer each other on no matter what because we know how (many) good players we got on the team. Everybody can play.
“So coach saying, ‘We’ve got seven starters?’ He’s not lying. It (doesn’t) matter who starts. Any given day, anybody can start.”
Reeves said he’s adopted that same mindset. One that’s been easy for him to accept; he was a reserve more often than not last season, after all, starting only 14 of the Wildcats’ 34 games. And he excelled in that role: Reeves shared the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year award last season, an honor bestowed upon him by the league’s coaches.
Unselfishness, he said, is a hallmark of this season’s Wildcats.
“Everybody brings something to the table, and that’s what’s so good about this team,” Reeves said, “and that’s what makes us so good: Everybody is capable of doing certain things that we need.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Mitchell. While he didn’t dispute Calipari’s assertion the team has more than five players capable of being in the lineup, Mitchell said “starter” is just a label. One he bristles at when it’s uttered.
“We wouldn’t say that, ‘Oh, we’ve got seven starters,'” Mitchell said. “No. It’s like, ‘We’ve got seven dudes — eight dudes, nine dudes.’ We’ve got dudes who can go.
“Regardless of who starts the game, everybody has to put their imprint on it.”
The Wildcats’ balanced group of seven proved to be better than the Hawks’ great one: SJU guard Erik Reynolds II led all scorers with 28 points Monday, making 52.9% (9 of 17) of his attempts. He was deadly from deep, nailing 6 of 12 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. His 28 points well outpaced his closest teammate; fellow guards Cameron Brown and Xzayvier Brown had 17 apiece.
While no team ever sets out to lose, Saint Joseph’s coach Billy Lange said there are times when setbacks are “still good for your program based on the spirit” displayed.
And the Hawks (3-2) gave everything they had Monday. If center Christ Essandoko had made his second free throw with 14 seconds left in regulation, Saint Joseph’s would have held a 78-77 lead.
“When you set up a competition, there’s only going to be two results: It’s either defeat or victory. Those are the only two things that can happen,” Lange said. “And if everything you do is react based on one of those two results, you can be led on a trajectory that’s very, very phony.”
Speaking from the opposing sideline — the winning side on a cold November night in Lexington — Calipari conceded his club could have been better. He pointed to rebounding (the Hawks won the battle on the boards, 42-37). He pointed to defense (the Hawks knocked down 15 triples, three days after they went 6 for 30 in a 57-54 home loss to Texas A&M-Commerce). And he readily admitted, multiple times during the postgame news conference, he still hasn’t got a handle on this team — rotations, when to call plays versus letting players take the baton and assorted other matters.
As Calipari tries to come up with those solutions, he’s grateful he’ll do so after pocketing another victory.
“You fight to win with a bunch of young guys? It is perfect,” he said. “You play a game you could have lost, but you didn’t.
“You figured out how to win.”
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Reach Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at [email protected] and follow him on X at @RyanABlack.
First appeared on www.courier-journal.com