By David Schuh | Men’s basketball columnist
For the first fives game of this young season, UK won despite the play of freshman guard Andrew Harrison.
The heralded point guard had made repeated “freshman” mistakes and failed to defend the way his 6-foot-6-inch frame should allow him to.
Yet on Monday, when the Cats were on the brink of suffering a monster upset at the hands of Cleveland State University, it was No. 5 that gave UK the push it needed.
The game began with a familiar narrative. UK came out slugglish and lethargic. They trailed by four points at halftime, maybe as poor a 20-minute stretch as you could possibly see them play.
In the opening 20 minutes, they shot 26.9 percent from the field, turned the ball over seven times and played a brand of team defense that has been a constant concern for head coach John Calipari.
Andrew Harrison only played six minutes in the first half, plagued by foul trouble from the opening minutes.
In the past, UK would have opened the second half like a completely different team. This time though, the Vikings kept the pressure on. With 14 minutes remaining, they had actually extended their lead to 11 points. It was much of the same for a team a long way from putting two full halves together.
The first opponent not named Michigan State University was giving UK a real challenge, and they needed a drastic change to avoid the most shocking loss of the Calipari era in Lexington.
It was near that point that the Cats flipped the switch. For five minutes and seven seconds, the Vikings didn’t score a field goal. UK was playing the defense they’re capable of. And on the back of Andrew Harrison’s play, they used a 12-0 run to take the lead.
In the final eight minutes, after he picked up his fourth foul, Andrew Harrison had six points and three assists, finally taking the reigns of a team he has long been christened to lead.
“He really stepped up as a leader, as he should,” UK freshman guard James Young said. “He really directed us, and he led us to the win.”
Many people say young teams like UK need losses to learn how to win. Most players won’t dare subscribe to that philosophy. But if there was ever a game that taught the Cats a lesson, it was against Cleveland State on Monday night.
They played 32 minutes of abysmal basketball, and all of the sudden, raised their effort level to that of their talent.
And Andrew Harrison was the catalyst. It’s been said that Calpari’s teams need a superstar point guard to make them go. Until now, Andrew Harrison has been anything but.
Yet, in order for UK to learn that the way to start games is the way they finished this one, their point guard will have to make it happen.