Kentucky fights to the finish to overcome gritty UNCG Spartans

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Kentucky's Keldon Johnson slams home a dunk during the second half of a 78-61 win over UNCG Saturday at Rupp Arena. (Kentucky Today/Bill Thiry)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky was in the fight of its life until the final 13 minutes. That’s all the time the Wildcats needed to overcome upset-minded UNCG Saturday at Rupp Arena.

Kentucky (7-1) stretched its winning streak to seven with a 78-61 win in a game that lived up to the initial hype until the Wildcats outscored the Spartans 28-6 in the last 13 minutes and sealed the deal by scoring 10 straight to close out the contest.

“We’ve got to fight to win games,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward. “Today we fought to win. That’s what we’ve got to do for 40 (minutes). Let’s go, fight to win.”

Granted, UNCG isn’t Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas or even North Carolina, but the Spartans made the Wildcats earn a seventh win and provided a glimpse into the team’s defensive potential going to open the second month of the season. Kentucky limited Spartans guard Francis Alfonso to just three points in the second half after he scored the team’s first 11 and tallied 19 in the opening half.

Overall, Kentucky outscored the guests 41-21 in the second half, an indication the team is improving, despite defensive lapses in close encounters VMI, Southern Illinois and Winthrop. A walloping of Monmouth last week gave the Wildcats a dose of confidence that clearly showed, especially in the second half against the Spartans.

It all started on the defensive end of the court and the seven players Calipari counted on down the stretch.

“That’s kind of old-school stuff, but I whoever was really competing and fighting, that’s who I left in the game,” he said. “…I’ve got to get less into result and more into the process and I’ve got to stay the course.”

Although unaware of Kentucky’s defensive struggles, UNCG coach Wes Miller was impressed with Kentucky’s defense in the final half.

“I thought their defense was tremendous in the second half,” he said. “We had a hard time (coming up) with quality shots.”

Calipari not only found out his team could fight when a game is tight, but he also found a trio of players  — all freshmen — he could depend on down the stretch. Guard Ashton Hagans limited Alfonso to just three points in the second half, while Keldon Johnson overcame an ankle tweak in the first half and carried dazzled his way to some big plays and dunks during the decisive scoring spree.

Calipari wasn’t surprised by Hagans’ defensive performance.

“It’s not what he did offensively,” Calipari said. “We put him on No. 10. We said, we can either let the kid get 60 or put Ashton on him, and then Ashton made him work to get shots and run, and all of a sudden you’re into their legs. They had to take him out a few times.

Johnson admitted his left ankle was sore following the contest but ignored the pain after receiving treatment in the second half.

“That’s what it was all about, we had to come out and fight in the second half,” said Johnson, who posted a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. “They weren’t going to back down and I knew we weren’t going to back down. We just had to keep fighting. Our intensity, we just took it up another level from the first half. We knew we had to pick it up another notch and get going.”

In addition to Johnson’s offensive and defensive contributions, Tyler Herro splashed a pair of 3-pointers in the final two minutes to put an exclamation point on the impressive finish. Herro tied a career-high with 18 points.

Like Johnson, Herro said the biggest difference-maker in the second half was “being able to fight like a team.”

“We played with a lot more intensity out there,” he said. “They came out, made a lot of shots, but we made some adjustments in the second half and stuck together and it was good to go up against a team like that.”

It was a win against a team that was more than capable of pulling off an upset.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge and it was going to be a good game,” Kentucky senior Reid Travis said. “I’m just happy with the outcome and the way we fought through in the second half.”

Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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