MORGANTOWN, W. Va. (KT) — Kevin Knox doesn’t mind trash-talking and was more vocal than normal during Kentucky’s first visit to West Virginia in more than four decades.
“They were talking trash to us, so I had to go back at them,” Knox said. “That’s what I love. I love road games and I love playing (in front) of big crowds and all that. That’s just something I live for.”
The Kentucky freshman forward not only provided the vocal leadership for Kentucky, but scored a career-high 34 points to lead the Wildcats to an 83-76 come-from-behind triumph over the seventh-ranked Mountaineers Saturday night in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge at the WVU Coliseum.
“I’ve love (an) atmosphere like this and I love playing in away games,” Knox said. “I love going against people in the road and that’s something I loved growing up. The other team yelling, hyped and the student-section (yelling) just gets me going. I was hitting some big shots.”
It was indeed a performance to remember for Knox and one that might just give Kentucky a much-needed boost going into the final 10 games of the regular season. Kentucky fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll following a sting of three losses in five games, including back-to-back setbacks to South Carolina and Florida.
The climb back into the rankings will take more impressive victories, but the performance against the Mountaineers, especially in the second half when UK rallied from a 17-point deficit, is a good place to start. Despite the large hole, Knox and his teammates never doubted.
“A lot of people were saying we have a hard time finishing games, but when we were down (17), we knew were going to come back and win this game. We just kept fighting and playing and the next thing you know, we won the game.”
When the Wildcats were struggling, Knox kept his team afloat and scored three of Kentucky’s first four field goals and remained consistent even as the Mountaineers built a 17-point lead with 3:50 remaining in the first half. Knox blamed the team’s struggles in the opening half on 11 turnovers.
“We were (making) some freshman mistakes,” he said. “Going into halftime, Coach told us to fight and (said) the game’s not over. We had to get a couple of stops, we made some shots and the next thing you know, we’re in the game.”
Knox, who scored 15 points in the first half, also made five of Kentucky’s eight shots from long range, none bigger than the trey he drained with 1:10 remaining that broke a 74-74 deadlock and gave the Wildcats the lead for good down the stretch. Kentucky, which made all 18 of its free throw attempts in the second half, drained four in the final 19 seconds.
“I stayed aggressive and I mixed the game up,” Knox said. “I went to the basket, got to the free-throw line and hit some big shots. They (the coaches) were on me about driving the basketball and sometimes if weren’t close than I would hit the shot. I just kept playing aggressive, kept doing what they asked me to do and it worked for me.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari liked the fact that Knox didn’t “settle.”
“He went at it,” Calipari said. “He took fouls (and) he went at the basket.”
Knox said the team’s ability to knock down shots from the charity-stripe in a tough environment came down to mental toughness.
“It’s just our mentality,” he said. “You just have to set to the line and know you are going to make the shot. That’s something we work on every day in practice … After practice, after shoot-arounds and before shoot-arounds. That’s what the game comes down to. If you knock your free throws down, you’re going to win pretty much any close game and that’s what we did in the second half.”
The outing by Knox wasn’t the first time he’s helped carry the Cats on the road. He scored 21 in a 76-68 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 16 and has scored 53 points in the past two games. Knox has been putting in extra hours to avoid a slump he endured earlier this month when he scored single digits in three games during a four-game stretch.
“I’ve been in gym before and after practice making sure I’ve got my (made) shots in,” he said. “It’s paying off. I’m going to keep doing it and keep working hard. I’m going to keep working out with the coaches and it’s going to pay off in the games.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said his squad ignored the scouting report on Knox, resulting in a career performance for the freshman forward.
“The whole idea was don’t leave (Knox),” Huggins said. “I don’t even think we knew where he was (on the court).”
And Knox took advantage of the opportunity and helped lead the Cats to victory against the gritty Mountaineers. It was only the third time in UK history they have rallied from at least a 15-point deficit in the second half.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.