UK fully healthy once again in win over Ole Miss

Hunter Shelton

No. 7 Kentucky (24-6, 13-4 Southeastern Conference) fought off a feisty Ole Miss team (13-17, 4-13 SEC) 83-72 on senior night inside Rupp Arena on Tuesday, March 1.

The super-senior tandem of Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz got one final send off from Big Blue Nation as the Wildcats completed a perfect regular season at home, going 18-0.

Combining for 15 points on 6-13 shooting, the duo played their parts en route to UK’s 13th SEC victory of the season, keeping the Wildcats nestled in the race for second place in the conference.

While Tuesday night was one to celebrate “Grandad” and “Uncle Dave” as TyTy Washington Jr. put it, the win over the Rebels was a total team effort, signifying that the Cats are fully healthy once again.

“It’s just good that we got through the injuries. It hurt us last game. We were a little bit out of sync last game. I felt this game we looked a little more in sync,” UK head coach John Calipari said.

In Kentucky’s previous outing, the Cats fell 75-73 to No. 14 Arkansas in Fayetteville on Feb. 26. Returning for UK was the usual starting backcourt of Washington and Sahvir Wheeler, both of whom missed the Wildcats’ games against Alabama and LSU.

Despite combining for 24 points, eight assists and four rebounds against the Razorbacks, there was clearly some rust that needed to be shaken off when the two first stepped on the court.

“I just needed a little bit of time,” Washington said. “When you’re just coming back from injury, especially a little nagging injury, it always takes time, but I feel good. Foot, ankle, everything feels good.”

Both guards looked and played like they were back to normal on Tuesday, as Wheeler scored 16 points and collected seven assists, while Washington poured in 14 points and four assists of his own.

The pair shot 11-19, turning the ball over just three times in 58 minutes combined. Wheeler himself noticed a difference in his performance against the Rebels.

“I got some of that rust off, getting in rhythm, scrimmaging and practicing,” he said. “Getting some extra time, shooting and handling the ball, doing different passes. Making sure I feel comfortable with my wrist.”

As Calipari has said many times this season, his players are not machines, they are not robots. It’s unreasonable to immediately expect stellar performances from players who are returning from injuries.

Washington was a prime example of this against Arkansas. Though he scored 10 points, he made just three of 12 shots against the Razorbacks coming off the bench, the worst shooting percentage of any Wildcat who took more than three shots.

The freshman found his groove on Tuesday, at one point scoring seven points in a row for Kentucky. Sometimes, all a player needs is to see the ball go through the basket.

“I was just happy to see the ball go through the hole. That actually just, like, boosted my confidence,” Washington said. “Just seeing the ball go in that many times in that time span was just very happy for me and I just felt finally feeling back to myself a little bit.”

While the all-star guards were getting back into the swing of things, Oscar Tshiebwe continued his monstrous tear against the Rebels.

Totaling a team-high 18 points and 15 rebounds, Tshiebwe earned his 24th double-double on the season, while simultaneously moving into third place on the single-season rebound list in program history.

At this point in the season, his absurd stat-lines are no longer shocking, but simply a staple of Kentucky basketball.

Not only does Tshiebwe’s presence make Kentucky a title contender, it instills confidence and faith in his teammates.

“Having a guy like Oscar, my confidence is very high,” Washington said. “I know if I miss it, 95 percent of the time he’s going to grab the rebound and put it back up, so we’re still getting the basket either way.”

Through 30 games, Tshiebwe is averaging 16.9 points and 15.3 rebounds per game. He is the leading rebounder in the nation, while his double-double count is good for second best amongst all players, showcasing how valuable he is to the success of Kentucky.

“He’s a reliable option to get us some baskets, like he’s shown throughout the season,” Wheeler said. “And defensively, with his hands and him being able to challenge shots and his ridiculous rates of rebounds is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. So, Oscar, his game and his game play, speaks for himself. He’s very important for our team.”

With one regular season game remaining until the SEC Tournament, all of the pieces are finally back in the puzzle for the Wildcats as they look to cut down the nets for the ninth time this April.