Kentucky was about to suffer an upset loss to Arkansas. And then Rob Dillingham happened.

Before Rob Dillingham started doing the things that Rob Dillingham can do, nothing much was going his way.

The Kentucky freshman guard came off the bench — as he does — and hit his first shot of the game. And then he missed a 3-pointer. And then he fouled a shooter. And then he missed a jumper. And then John Calipari took him out.

He didn’t do much in the first half of UK’s eventual 111-102 win over Arkansas on Saturday in Rupp Arena. He didn’t do much for most of the second half, either. In fact, after that layup to start things off, he missed seven of his next eight shots.

But when the Wildcats needed him most? Boy, did Dillingham deliver.

The Razorbacks were double-digit underdogs in Rupp on Saturday, coming to town four days after losing a home game to Vanderbilt — the lowest-rated team in the SEC — and one loss away from a losing record in a season going nowhere.

Yet there they were, up nine points and scoring at will on No. 16 Kentucky more than midway through the second half. The lead was still seven points with less than seven minutes left when Dillingham started doing those Dillingham things.

First, he found the rapidly improving Zvonimir Ivisic for an and-one bucket. Arkansas 88, Kentucky 84.

Then, he came up with a steal and ran the other way, hitting the layup, drawing the foul and making the free throw. Arkansas 88, Kentucky 87.

Rupp Arena, relatively quiet to that point, erupted.

The Hogs hit two free throws on the other end. Dillingham marched back down the court, drew a foul, and hit two of his own. Arkansas 90, Kentucky 89.

Next trip down, Dillingham scored again. Kentucky 91, Arkansas 90, but the Razorbacks took the lead right back on their next possession.

And then Dillingham was done messing around.

The 19-year-old found Justin Edwards for an alley-oop dunk 14 seconds later. He made two more free throws on the possession after that. He hit Ivisic for a dunk on the next trip down the court. Less than a minute later, another Dillingham bucket. And then another assist to Ivisic.

And by that point, it was Kentucky 102, Arkansas 94. There were still a couple of minutes on the clock and plenty more points to be scored, but this game was over. The Hogs never threatened again. Seemingly on the verge of a major upset, they got Rob’d.

Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham reacts after scoring against Arkansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. He had 15 points and five assists in the Wildcats’ victory.
Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham reacts after scoring against Arkansas during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. He had 15 points and five assists in the Wildcats’ victory.

“Sometimes I feel like — in the first half — you get good shots. You feel like they’re good shots. And they just don’t go,” Dillingham said afterward. “So when they keep missing, it kind of hurts your confidence. But I feel like when the second half comes — whenever Coach puts me back in — I feel like if he has the confidence to put me back in, then I should have the confidence in myself.

“I feel like I’ve done it before, so I can make big plays.”

He sure made some big ones Saturday afternoon, but back it up …

Did Rob Dillingham — the guy who oozes confidence — really say he sometimes loses it?

“Yeah, I mean, internally everybody’s gonna have some type of confidence drop if their shot’s not falling. But you can’t let it show,” he said. “You take the same shots you would take if you were hitting shots. …

“You’re not going to make every shot. So you gotta just keep playing.”

That’s the mentality Dillingham has been playing with all season long. For as long, really, as the bright basketball spotlight that follows five-star recruits has shined his way. And while there are other electric players on this Kentucky team — lots of them, in fact — there’s no one anywhere in college basketball quite like Dillingham. Not when he plays like this.

“That’s a dog. That is a dog right there,” teammate Aaron Bradshaw said. “He’s gonna play the whole 40 minutes — however long the game is — he’s gonna play that game. I’m just proud of him.”

Dillingham has gone on late-game heaters before. He almost single-handedly beat Texas A&M at the end in January, but Kentucky lost. He made some big plays down the stretch — including a possible game-winner — at LSU a couple of weeks ago. Kentucky lost there, too.

On Saturday in Rupp, once Dillingham got going, the result was inevitable.

“It’s fun. It’s amazing,” fellow freshman D.J. Wagner said. “Just seeing him do all the great things he did at the end of the game. Making them big shots. Making them big plays. It’s amazing. And we’re all confident in him. We all know he can do that. So we were happy to see it.”

When Dillingham got in his zone, the confidence seemed to spread like wildfire. The final box score was an offensive marvel. Seven Kentucky players scored in double figures. The Cats shot 56.7% from the field, 45.0% from 3-point range and made 34 of 42 free throws. Antonio Reeves — the team’s leading scorer with 22 points — didn’t play the final 7:50 of the game, Calipari deciding not to mess with success when things got rolling down the stretch.

Dillingham acknowledged that he raised the energy level in the final minutes Saturday, but he also pointed out that there are a number of Wildcats on this roster that can do the same at any moment.

“It helps us. Because one of us makes a play, and the crowd gets involved, and it hypes up our momentum,” he said. “And then other people have confidence to make shots and block shots and do defensive things. So, really, the hype boosts everyone, instead of just having one player that carries us. It boosts our whole team, because we all get hype off of it.”

Bradshaw had his best game in months, scoring 15 points and going 4-for-4 from the field.

Ivisic had 12 points and nine rebounds, including five defensive boards in the final 5:29.

Edwards scored 10 — with two big shots in the final two minutes, both coming after Arkansas had cut Kentucky’s advantage to six points — plus three steals over the last 3:23 of the game.

Wagner scored 19 — his highest total since November — and made 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

All four of those freshmen have struggled this season. Mightily, at times.

They were all smiles at the end of Saturday’s game.

“I told them — for the rest of their basketball lives — and what they seem to have learned, D.J., Robert, Aaron, I can go on and on: Guys within this team that have played a bad half, knew they weren’t gonna play that way the second half,” Calipari said. “That’s one battle. The second battle becomes: You have to have so much supreme confidence that no one can take it away. Not me. Not a player on the other team. Not an official. No one takes it away. And the only way you get that way is to live in the gym.

“I told them today, ‘I’ve had players live in the gym. I’ve not had this many that live in the gym.’ They get work in. And they are building their own confidence. That’s what they are doing. And you gotta have supreme confidence that, ‘Even if I miss two, I’m making the next two. Or I’m making a game-winner.’”

Dillingham wears that confidence like a patch on his jersey.

The shifty, 6-foot-3 guard from Hickory, North Carolina, long known for his explosive offensive game said at the beginning of this season that he was still trying to find the balance of when to go and when to hold back. When to take the shot and when to put it in the holster or pass it off.

That process isn’t finished. He’s still learning. But he feels he’s gotten smarter with the basketball in his hands. And he said Calipari has helped him get to a better place in that sense.

But Rob is still Rob, and Cal is still Cal. And when times like these arise, the kid is going to do what he knows best.

“I definitely feel like Coach has trusted me, and he’s helped me,” Dillingham said. “And he also tells me — even though he yells at me — I can’t really stress (about) what he yells at me for. I just gotta play basketball. And that’s what he tells us. In the moment, he’ll be mad at us. But now I don’t really think about what he says. I just play basketball. And if I mess up, then I mess up. I come out of the game. And I’ll get another chance. That’s how I look at it.”

Next game

Vanderbilt at No. 16 Kentucky

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Vanderbilt 8-21 (3-13 SEC), Kentucky 21-8 (11-5)

Series: Kentucky leads 156-49

Last meeting: Kentucky won 109-77 on Feb. 6 in Nashville, Tenn.

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