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Kentucky Holds Off Texas 63-51

The Wildcats opened up the second half of a tie game with a decisive 18-2 run, then held off the Longhorns late surge.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Playing top-ranked Kentucky in front of a raucous sell-out crowd in Lexington, Texas went blow for blow with the Wildcats for 31 tough minutes. But for a 9-minute stretch to open the second half, the Longhorns succumbed to a run, as the home team took a game tied at 26 and blew open a 44-28 lead, then held off a Longhorns rally for a 63-51 win.

When Cauley-Stein scored to extend UK's lead to 16 points with 11:39 to play, it looked like Texas might not score again all game and was headed for the same blowout fate that befell all of Kentucky's previous 7 opponents. In impressive and heartening fashion, however, the Longhorns steadied their ship and, having weathered the Wildcat's second half storm, steadily began to work their way back into the game.

Demarcus Holland hit a three pointer to end Kentucky's run. Myles Turner hit a pair of free throws, Texas got a pair of stops in between, and then a lay up from Turner on a great drive and dish from -- who else? -- Holland, and just like that, John Calipari was up from the bench, calling for a timeout. The Wildcats' 16-point lead and an imminent blowout had shrunk to 9 and Texas had regained control of the game's tempo.

The Longhorns would cut the lead further still, reaching a 5-point deficit twice -- at 46-51 with 4:37 to play and 51-56 with 1:44 to play -- but couldn't quite complete the full comeback, as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein came up with enough big plays down the stretch to fend off the visiting Horns.

Game notes? Game notes.

Horns_bullet_mediumGame MVPs. You might have missed it if you weren't paying attention -- and to be fair to Jay Bilas and Dan Schulman, they only got to mention it 47 times -- but ESPN's broadcasting duo thought Willie Cauley-Stein was the key player for Kentucky in this game.  I guess, but the highlight for me was the entertainment value of watching the Harrison twins thoroughly waste every ounce of natural talent they possess. But yeah, for pure effectiveness, WCS was pretty much the nuts tonight -- 21 points, 12 boards, 5 steals and 3 blocks on the night, anchoring a team that otherwise struggled for much of the game with Texas' length and physicality.

Not many eyebrows would raise upon learning that Cauley-Smith was the best player on the floor tonight, but where do you suppose Texas' Demarcus Holland would have been drafted before the game in a hypothetical selection of the players by likelihood of making the biggest impact on tonight's game?  Maybe 12th? 14th? Perhaps 10th, if we count his mother's vote.

Suffice to say Holland was not the focal point of fans and analysts' pregame discussions about the match up. But with all that talent on the floor -- literally a dozen future professional players -- the second best player on the floor on Friday night was Demarcus Holland.

I'm going to say that again to make sure it really sinks in: Willie Cauley-Stein was the best player on the court tonight, and Demarcus Holland was the second best.

The junior shooting guard played 38 minutes of a grueling, physical game, delivering 10 points on 3-7 shooting, including 5-5 on free throws, coupled with 4 rebounds, 2 steals, 5 assists, and not a single turnover. Holland was the only Longhorns player who proved capable of driving through Kentucky's long, aggressive defense, collapsing defenders to free up space for his teammates. He played fearlessly and with unrelenting effort, but those are traits he's possessed since he arrived; it's Holland's development as a complete guard that has been transformational, and a true pleasure to watch. What an unlikely stud.

Horns_bullet_mediumThe rest of the guards were... less good. On the other sideline, I've already singled out the lousy games delivered by the Harrison twins, (3-for-17 from the floor overall, 1-8 beyond the arc, 0 free throw attempts), and really the entire Wildcats' backcourt struggled to gain traction on Friday night. Booker bricked everything he shot and Ulis didn't register the impact he has been this year.

That was a blessing for Texas, whose backcourt was already down a man with Taylor's injury. While Holland was brilliant, we needed Javan Felix to deliver a steady performance but as was one of my big fears coming into the game, the junior was totally overwhelmed for the game's first 30 minutes, when he went 0-4 shooting the ball, and failed to register a single assist while turning it over a whopping 5 times. We needed the Felix who over the game's final 10 minutes went 2-for-4 for 5 points and 1 assist, with no turnovers.

Kendal Yancy showed me some things that I really liked, actually, but he wasn't able to deliver us much value from the perimeter, where he played hard and gave us 6 big rebounds but scored just 4 points on 1-6 shooting and coughed up 4 turnovers in 17 minutes.

Y'think having Zay out there for 30 of those perimeter minutes might have made a bit of a difference? Maybe just a little?

Horns_bullet_mediumOur frontcourt showed up to play. They didn't win all the battles, and ultimately the war, but the Texas front line took the fight right to the Wildcats' wave of massive forwards. Kentucky's players, used to being ceded the dominant role -- physically and psychologically -- seemed rather stunned when Holmes, Lammert, Ibeh, Ridley, and Turner came out and immediately asserted themselves from an alpha position.

I liked what I saw. It didn't work out ideally for us in every regard -- the officials' tight whistling wound up landing us in early foul trouble -- but on the whole, the good outweighed the bad. It helped our guys mentally approach what was going to be a tremendous physical challenge, and it softened the edge of our opponents' frontcourt. This group of Wildcats doesn't look like a group of front runners, but it was clear they weren't used to being challenged in the ways that we were.

The performances themselves were uneven. Ridley continues with the maddening play that has characterized his play to open this season, and I'm increasingly convinced that he's lost in his own head right now. He's playing like -- actually, let me rephrase that because that's the problem -- he's not playing, he's thinking. He looks like a player who is trying to think about what he is supposed to do, about to do, would be best to do, would like to -- whoops, the double team arrived. We've got to find a way to get him to play strong but loose at the same time. He's trying too hard, and tonight was a bull in a china shop.

Myles Turner did some nice things, but looked more like a true freshman tonight. Not in a concerning way, just in a way that served as a good measurement of where he's at and where he'd like to be by March.

I was really pleased with the minutes that we got from Prince Ibeh, and it's too bad he's so helpless shooting from the line. As awkward as it is for him to shoot the ball like that, I'm not kidding: he'd be better off shooting it Rick Barry style. It'll never happen, but it should.

Lammert was really great for us tonight, especially in the first half but for most of the game, really. 34 strong minutes helping us as the high post in our offense while playing long and strong inside with Kentucky's trees, hauling in 9 big rebounds, 4 on the offensive glass.

As for Holmes, the kid's a freaking warrior and I love the way he battles. Some of his aggression manifests itself counterproductively here and there, but you don't want to tell a guy like Holmes to take it down a notch and risk losing his edge. You just ask him to be as smart as he can be without compromising his aggression and live with whatever comes along with all the good.

I thought he was a little tight over the game's first 10 minutes and he got stuck drifting around the perimeter a little bit too much.  If we could play the game over, I bet we'd have worked the ball to Holmes curling off the low block stack screens sooner. Our halfcourt offense for a 6- minute stretch in the middle third of the 2nd half was really impressive -- good enough to win the game, if sustained over the entire course of action. Easier said than done, but it was an impressive showing, particularly given its timing on the heels of a Kentucky run that very easily could have knocked us down and out for the game.

Horns_bullet_mediumFinal Thoughts. All things considered, there was enough to like about what we saw from this Texas team tonight to take away some of the unavoidable sting that accompanies a loss -- even on the road to a top-ranked team like Kentucky. I hate to lose, but I'm invested in this team and its development, and on the big picture scorecard, we got some important passing marks on some of the hardest tests we'll face all year. And though it's easy to forget -- this season seems like it started ages ago -- we're only in the first week of December.

In the end, we were one player short today, but proved to ourselves and anyone who watched that we've got the foundation for a successful season and a team that will be able to compete for a Big 12 title and have a chance at winning four straight games over two weekends in March.

(Get well soon, Zay. Pretty please?)

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