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For one shining Saturday, this inconsistent Kentucky basketball team was simply brilliant

They lose focus sometimes, and they don’t always guard, and they don’t always fight for loose balls, and they can make the kind of basic mistakes that can drive even the most hardcore member of Big Blue Nation to the edge of the nearest ledge.

But when they’re on, oh man, when these young Kentucky Wildcats are ripping and running and passing and shooting and moving and grooving, they are a sight to behold.

Saturday, the Cats were brilliant.

There’s no other word for it. In UK’s 117-95 romp over SEC leading Alabama, the Cats shot 63.1% for the game. They made 13 of 24 3-pointers. They were credited with 24 assists on 41 made field goals. They scored 58 points in the first half and 59 in the second.

Stat of the day: Alabama shot 56.7% from the field and trailed by as many as 37 points and lost by 22.

“Kentucky was ready to play and we weren’t,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said afterward. “Cal had his guys ready and I didn’t.

Oh, Kentucky was ready alright. After that stunning buzzer-beating 75-74 loss at LSU on Wednesday — the game in which the Cats blew a 15-point second-half lead in Baton Rouge — Calipari’s club was apparently champing at the bit to prove themselves yet again in a big game against a big-time opponent.

Last Saturday, they did so with defense. Unexpected defense. Not exactly this team’s strong suit. Still, the Cats found a way to hold the Auburn Tigers to 59 points on the way to handing Bruce Pearl’s team its first home loss of the season.

This Saturday, in the friendly and loud confines of Rupp Arena, they did it with offense. Dazzling offense. Explosive offense. Even some unexpected offense.

Say hello to Justin Edwards. You remember Edwards, the No. 3-rated prospect in the class of 2023 by 247Sports, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Philadelphia who had struggled to live up to the hype. He was averaging 8.1 points per game and shooting a mere 31.1% on his 3-point shots.

Against Alabama, Edwards couldn’t miss. Literally. He made all 10 of his shots, including all four of his 3-pointers. He did miss a free throw, going 4-for-5 at the foul line, but you’d have to be a grouchy picker of nits to complain about that.

Question: Justin, did you wake up Saturday morning thinking you were going to have a good game?

“No,” said Edwards. “I just did my normal routine.”

Meanwhile, Calipari woke up Friday morning thinking he was going to play Big Z. You remember, Big Z, aka Zvonimir Ivisic, the 7-foot sometimes Croatian Sensation who has spent more time sitting the bench of late. Despite some “pushback” from his staff, Cal decided that Ivisic would be the first “big” off the Kentucky bench.

When called upon, Big Z came up big. He scored 18 points, grabbed five rebounds, blocked four shots and made another of those no-look passes that caused you to go, “What was that?”

“I made some mistakes when I first got in there and Coach left me in,” Ivisic said. “I had to repay him.”

Said Calipari, ‘We have guys who can play basketball.”

Kentucky Wildcats guard Antonio Reeves (12) celebrates with guard D.J. Wagner (21) after forcing a turnover against Alabama Crimson Tide forward Nick Pringle (23) during the game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY, Saturday, February 24, 2024. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com
Kentucky Wildcats guard Antonio Reeves (12) celebrates with guard D.J. Wagner (21) after forcing a turnover against Alabama Crimson Tide forward Nick Pringle (23) during the game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY, Saturday, February 24, 2024. Silas Walker/swalker@herald-leader.com

Whether this team can execute the little details of basketball enough to make a deep run in March remains to be seen. Calipari himself said Saturday that his Cats have a tendency to lose focus and then panic. It happened at Baton Rouge. There’s no guarantee it won’t happen again.

And Tuesday brings a tricky road trip to Starkville. Mississippi State is on a five-game win streak after its 87-67 thrashing of LSU on Saturday. Chris Jans’ team is playing good basketball. And its the type of defensive-oriented basketball that has caused the Cats trouble this season.

That wasn’t the case Saturday. With two of the nation’s highest-scoring teams sharing the same court, a foot race turned into a boat race. And the Tide was the team boat-raced.

“I don’t know how many records they set,” Oats said, “but I’m guessing it was quite a few.”

So who knows what the future holds, but on one shining Saturday, the Cats were a sight to behold.

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