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Why UK’s bowl win mattered

Vaught’s Views

 

If you need a few more reasons to appreciate just how memorable Kentucky’s 37-30 comeback victory over Virginia Tech was in last week’s Belk Bowl, here you go thanks to Corey Price of UK Athletics:

— It was only the third time UK scored a touchdown in the final 15 seconds of regulation play to win (Missouri, 2018, and Vanderbilt, 1971, were the other two).

— Kentucky won a bowl game for the second consecutive year for only the third time in school history (1950-51 was the first time, 2006-2008 the second time).

— Kentucky set a school record for most points scored in a bowl game (previous record was 35 in the 2007 Music City Bowl). The Cats scored 37 or more points in their final four games — the first time UK has done that in four straight games since 2007.

— Kentucky gave up 329 yards of total offense to Virginia Tech, the eighth straight game an opponent gained less than 330 yards against UK. That’s the best streak since the 1977 team held all 11 opponents under 329 yards.

“For us to lose all the guys to the (NFL) draft that we did and then lose our quarterback and still go 8-5 says a lot about the talent on this team,” recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow. “Our defense was supposed to be down but this whole team just came together.

“We got credit for finding some kids nobody else recruited them and developing them. But you still have to have Jimmys and Joes. We have a lot of four-star players and high three-star guys and now we are getting some five stars that we did not have before. The more highly rated guys you get, the better you are going to be. So when people say we don’t have talent, they are just wrong.”

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Remember how Mississippi State coach Ben Howland upset UK fans before the 2018-19 season when he said Tennessee, not UK, should be the SEC favorite.

Going into conference play this year, Howland was all blue.

“I think Kentucky — as it was going into the season — is the team to beat,” Howland said on the SEC coaches teleconference before the Cats beat Georgia 71-59 to start conference play.

However, he followed that by saying the race was “wide open with no bad teams” in the league.

“All 18 games, you’re going to have a chance to win and a chance to lose,” Howland said.

That’s the same feeling Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who took his team to the Final Four last year, had.

“There is no bottom to the league. I think there are a couple, two or three teams ahead of everyone else from an experience and talent standpoint,” Pearl said. “But there are not those wins anybody in league can look at and say that’s a win. That makes for a very difficult league to coach in and win in.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari — like he has done in recent years — touted the league’s balance before SEC play started.

“There’s no one that will walk into Rupp Arena and we will say, ‘Alright, we can get this one.’ There’s not one team in this league,” Calipari said. “Again, I’ve been in this league a long time and I’ve said early on when we were getting three teams in (the NCAA Tournament), this is going to be a six-, seven-, eight-bid league.

“That’s what we’ve become, which means you can lose any game you play. You can win any game you play, but you can lose any game you play, too.”

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If Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is right, injured quarterback Terry Wilson will be healthy enough to start when UK opens the 2020 season Sept. 5 against Eastern Michigan.

“I 100 percent anticipate he’ll be ready to go,” Stoops said before UK played in the Belk Bowl last week.”

However, Stoops also said that was his opinion and not based yet on anything medical personnel had told him. Wilson was UK’s starter in 2018 when the Cats went 10-3 and threw for 1,889 yards and ran for 547 yards. He tore a patellar tendon in his left knee in week two this season.

Wilson will miss spring practice but was on the field throwing in Charlotte during pregame workouts at the Belk Bowl with his UK teammates.

“He looks good. He’s got to continue to build that quad. That’s the big thing with that type of injury because you have a tendency to get some atrophy from letting that heal for so long,” Stoops said. “He’s got to get some weight back on, in general, but we had a talk before we left for the bowl, before we had the little Christmas break, and he knows that.

“He’s able to attack the weight room now. He was getting big, and he needs to be. Not in a bad way, but a good way.”

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After Nick Richards’s career-best performance against Louisville when he had 13 points and 10 rebounds in the overtime win, fans were full of love for the UK junior center. So were the UK coaches.

“We were high-fiving and hugging him is what we were doing. He’s such a beautiful kid. You want him to babysit your kids. He’s that kind of kid,” Barbee said. “Everybody on campus loves him.

“But in this game you’ve got to have an alter ego. When you step on the court you can be whatever you want out on that floor, but it can’t be a nice guy. He decided not to be so nice (against Louisville).”

Barbee emphasized it’s more about confidence than emotion for Richards — just like it was his first two seasons when he often lacked confidence in his ability.

“It’s been a confidence deal. It’s why he’s more reserved on the court, doesn’t want to step out, to put himself out there because now you’re accountable to do that every day,” Barbee said. “If we can get that Nick — and it wasn’t us throwing the ball to him every possession.

“He defended at a high level. He rebounded at a high level. I think he felt that success which brought out that emotion. With performance comes reward, and we need more big performances like that from him.”

That is exactly what Kentucky got against Georgia, too, as Richards had 17 points in the first half and finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots.

“He was a physical player and he had a few jump shots he hit early that I think helped his confidence. Got to give him credit,” Missouri center Reed Nikko said. “We respect him as a player. Our game plan was that we just had to keep him out of the paint. Obviously, he was hitting jump shots that we weren’t ready for.”

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Quote of the Week: “When you think of Kentucky, you don’t just think of the basketball team, you think of the fans and Big Blue Nation as a whole. When you face adversity, they feel it, too. They’re not the ones playing or practicing but they live and breathe for this stuff. So, if we’re not playing well, they kind of feel like they’re not playing well, whether they’re playing or not,” UK’s Nate Sestina on UK basketball fans’ passion for the Wildcats.

Quote of the Week 2: “I never even told him but I always prayed for him every night. When I woke up every morning, I prayed for him. I just really wanted to see him make it through it. Everybody loves him. That’s my brother and I love him too,” UK defensive tackle Calvin Taylor on teammate Josh Paschal, who was diagnosed with cancer before the 2018 season but came back to play this year.

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