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By David Schuh
For the second straight game, UK played like a Final Four team for 30 minutes.
The Cats beat the University of Mississippi, 84-70 on Tuesday, an impressive performance given the difficult loss that came three days before.
In reality, UK dominated the Rebels just long enough that a second-half implosion didn’t matter.
The first half was the best 20 minutes UK has played this season.
They continued the stout defensive pressure that made its loss to the University of Florida such a close game.
UK head coach John Calipari again cleverly switched between zone and man-to-man defense, and his players thrived.
The Cats played with energy and confidence and made shots in the first half. All they had to do was repeat that effort in the second half for an easy 30-point win. They did, but not for long.
When sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein made a layup with 9:08 left in the game, UK took a 62-40 lead, its largest of the game.
The rout was on, but that’s not something you can assume from these Cats.
For the next seven minutes and 52 seconds, the Cats didn’t make a field goal.
Regardless of the score, no defense can support that offense.
The Rebels managed to cut the lead to six, but never got closer. UK made its usual immature mistakes, including 19 turnovers. This time, though, the Cats gave themselves enough cushion to withstand their own downfall.
The positives to take away were obvious. UK came to Oxford, Miss., with a desperate mentality and delivered. The Cats knew that they had just six games to fix what went wrong against Florida.
And in the first 30 minutes, we saw a confident, relentless team — the one that can make a serious run into the NCAA Tournament.
But then the Cats eased off. They lost focus and crumbled, becoming a team that could see its season end quicker than anyone imagined four months ago.
In the matter of a week, UK has found itself in an identity crisis. Before, we knew they were a talented team giving mediocre results.
Now, with five games remaining in the regular season, the Cats are bipolar, fighting to maintain the elite play that comes in impressive, albeit brief, flashes.
Maybe the loss to Florida on Saturday was UK’s best performance of the season.
And if it was, then Tuesday’s win matched it in every way.
Only this time, the implosion wasn’t as costly.