Kentucky’s win over North Carolina first step in climb back to the top

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Just maybe Kentucky’s win over North Carolina will help ease the pain of a season-opening loss to Duke. It remains to be seen, but every little bit helps as the Wildcats delve deeper into the season.

Sure, losing by 34 points to the Blue Devils wasn’t an easy thing to swallow, but Kentucky coach John Calipari and the players couldn’t dwell on the disappointing setback and give up hope on the season. They simply faced reality, full speed ahead.

“Once we finished that game, it was over, and we knew that we just had to put it in the back of our minds — that’s just the main thing,” Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson said following Kentucky’s 80-72 win over No. 9 North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic Saturday in Chicago. ‘We know that we didn’t do what we’re supposed to do that game and we just bounced back and kept going harder and harder in practice each and every day and just put that behind us.”

They ignored the whispers of doubt and didn’t waiver after a disappointing overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden earlier this month. The noise was loud at times, but the players tuned it all out.

“The coaching staff does a good job of telling us to stay off social media in regards to reading what people say,” Kentucky freshman guard Tyler Herro said. “You know, we just work hard in practice every day. We got our team that we stick to and we stick to each other and we work hard to get better every day in practice.”

What transpired was a blowout win over Utah followed by a signature win over the Tar Heels that should keep the Wildcats in the discussion when it comes to potential title contenders.

“It’s a resume win,” Herro said. “Like I said before, how hard we’ve been working in practice, (Saturday) was important to finally see something pay off. It was a big win and we’re excited about it.”

That paycheck has been cashed and now the Wildcats get a few days off for Christmas before shifting their focus to rival Louisville, the team’s final non-conference opponent before opening Southeastern Conference play against Alabama on the first Saturday in January.

Although he’s stayed away from social media, Herro is aware of the hype surrounding the program and has already heard about the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry.

“One of the fans told us when we got here — you can lose every game just not the Louisville game,” he said. “It’s going to be fun. Just going to approach that game like any other game and go out there and compete.”

Kentucky’s recent success during the past two weeks has been because of the emergence of Ashton Hagans in the backcourt. Hagans was one of the difference-makers against the Tar Heels and collected seven steals and provided the lead on the defensive of the court.

“His defensive presence is amazing,” Johnson said. “You see it all, he was locking up, making plays, big stops and you could just see it rubbing off on everybody.”

As it now turns out, Hagans was part of a tweak to help get the Wildcats back on track following the loss to the Pirates.

“I’m putting the ball in his hands and he’s making the right plays, and it was a small tweak that we made about a week ago and when I watched it, I said, “Okay, we got this now,’” Calipari said. “And he’s making the game easy for everybody.”

Even North Carolina coach Roy Williams was impressed by Hagans’ performance against his squad.

“(I) saw him in high school and really liked him in high school,” he said. “He reclassified. He’s a really gifted young man and works really hard, too. … (He is) a guy that sees the defense. He’s a gifted youngster and his shooting percentage from deep is not good, but where he attacks the basket and passes the ball and defends like crazy and plays with a reckless abandon.”

Calipari will be seeking a similar effort against the Cardinals and Johnson said the Wildcats are prepared for the task at hand.

“(We) just (have to) go out there and take care of business,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll come out with the same mindset of just wanting to win. That’s what we do.”

Sometimes that’s simply 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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