COLUMN: Cats find identity with victory

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Before Wednesday, it was difficult to gauge exactly how good this young Cats team was. It had beaten a top-20 Washington in Maui, only to be edged out by a 4-3 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Wednesday night, the team would find out.

UK head coach John Calipari stared at the scoreboard with four minutes to play in the first half against an undefeated Notre Dame. His team was in an 11-point hole as he sat his big men in favor of a smaller lineup and by the time the final seconds ran out on the opening half, the game was tied at 40.

That momentum would carry into the second half as UK would go on a 6-0 run, with Notre Dame not seeing its first points come until senior guard Ben Hansbrough’s free throws with 16 minutes left to play. UK would hold that lead for the rest of the game, eventually handing Notre Dame its first loss of the season 72-58.

Freshman forward Terrence Jones had his fifth double-double in eight games, continuing to be the core of the team’s offense. On a team with no true facilitator, Jones seems to be a unconventional point guard of sorts as UK appeared to ensure he got at least one touch per possession.

Six of Jones’ 25 points came from behind the line. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said that’s exactly why he continues to be a nightmare for coaches and defenders.

“Jones is an amazing talent. He’s just really difficult to defend … We tried to double him but then he’d kick it out and they’d hit threes,” Brey said.

Jones attributed his dominance to his teammates.

“I’d say it’s easy (to let the game come to you) when you have guys that can hit their shots. It’s easy playing with players who can play like that.”

However, the biggest chink in UK’s armor continued to show with anemic play from the big men. Junior forward Eloy Vargas appeared to be hiding behind defenders rather than posting up on them and senior forward Josh Harrellson is yet to take a free throw this season.

But what UK lacks in its presence in the paint, it makes up for behind the arc. Shooting 37.5 percent from behind the line, true to form, it continues to be an inverse of the model of team it was last season.

UK’s sixth man may have been the crowd, as UK fans filled up their rival’s former arena; Louisville’s Freedom Hall was overrun with blue. Perhaps the lack of unenthusiastic, blue-haired season ticket holders was the main reason for a substantial increase in decibels, but Wednesday night inside Freedom Hall, it was louder than your average game in Rupp.

“It was a great atmosphere … this simulates a Big East week for us,” Brey said.

Calipari said his team needed last week’s loss to figure out just how good it was.

“Only a crisis brings about change, and that Carolina game was a little bit of a crisis for us because of how we played and how individuals played,” Calipari said.

At 9:30 Wednesday night, UK still wasn’t sure just how good it was. Two hours later, the team was beginning to get a pretty good idea.