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On a perfect night, Justin Edwards had his breakthrough. ‘It’s not gonna rain forever.’

There were no premonitions when Justin Edwards awoke Saturday morning.

The college freshman greeted that day in the same way as the others that had come before it during this Kentucky basketball season.

Did Edwards know, he was asked, that this day would unfold the way it did?

“No,” he said with a laugh. “Did my normal routine.”

There was nothing normal about the time he spent on the Rupp Arena court that evening. Some other adjective — Spectacular? Tremendous? Amazing? — will have to go in its place.

Kentucky’s 117-95 victory over 13th-ranked Alabama in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 22-point margin of victory would indicate? That was jaw-dropping enough. The vision of Edwards — a former No. 1-ranked high school recruit still waiting for his big moment on the college basketball scene — hitting shots from all over the court, eliciting cheer after cheer from a rocking Rupp crowd? That was a sight to behold.

Edwards scored 28 points in the rout over the Crimson Tide, blowing away his previous season high of 17. He made all 10 of his shots from the field, just the third Wildcat in program history to take that many without a miss. The other two were Kenny Walker and Rodney Dent.

Walker achieved the feat against Western Kentucky, in a game with no 3-point line. Dent — a 6-11 center — did it against Morehead State, all of his makes coming from 2-point range.

Edwards did it against the team at the top of the SEC standings. And his night included four 3-pointers.

The 6-foot-8 guard from Philadelphia had his moments to this point in the season. His previous career high came earlier this month at Vanderbilt, but that was a rout from the beginning over a much-lesser opponent. Edwards had put together a good half here and there, an occasional momentum-shifting flurry, but never something like this.

And the expectations he was saddled with before he even stepped foot on UK’s campus — his name at the top of the recruiting rankings; the possible No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft — were far from fulfilled. John Calipari kept talking about a breakthrough that was coming, but — 26 games into this Kentucky basketball season — it hadn’t come yet.

It was fair to wonder if it ever would. Edwards didn’t wonder.

“I wouldn’t say I really needed it, you know?” he said Saturday night. “I always knew that I was going to have a good game. I didn’t know that it was going to be this game. But I always believed in God, and knew that I was going to be fine.”

But there were frustrations — lots of them — along the way. Some happened in plain sight, Calipari pulling Edwards from a game on more than one occasion when his body language matched the less-than-stellar basketball being played on the court.

Away from the spotlight, there were struggles, too.

“I’ve been struggling mentally for the last …” Edwards started, pausing to think of the proper time frame before acknowledging it. “Basically the whole season. So just to be able to go out there and play how I did, it means a lot.”

Kentucky guard Justin Edwards smiles after forcing a turnover against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards smiles after forcing a turnover against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

Calipari stuck with Edwards in the starting lineup the entire season, even when others — Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham, specifically — put up bigger numbers and made a larger impact from their reserve roles. As their NBA draft stock soared, Edwards’ plummeted. From possible No. 1 pick to late lottery to the end of the first round to questions over whether he would even be drafted at all after this season — all in a matter of months.

He never let on that he concentrated too much on those kinds of projections. He was too busy thinking about the present. And while he committed himself to “staying the course,” what was happening wasn’t how he thought his freshman season would go.

“It kind of was a shock,” he said. “That was my first time going through real adversity.”

His coaches stuck with him. So did his teammates.

“Everybody,” he said of who helped him the most around UK’s program. “They all stuck with me. They all told me they believed in me. And I was going to be fine.”

On Saturday, he was much more than that.

His first two marks in the box score? Both rebounds, something Calipari has been imploring him to do all season, preaching that being more active in other areas would get his all-around game going. When the shots started falling Saturday, the Rupp Arena crowd took notice. A jumper here, a 3-pointer there, a drive or a dunk. The points started piling up.

With 15:25 left in the game and the Cats leading 71-54, Edwards stole the ball, a few seconds later getting it back for another 3-point look. The shot fell, of course. So did Edwards, going to the ground while getting fouled.

“You want to know something crazy?” he asked, a big smile on his face. “That’s my first time ever shooting a 3 and getting fouled. So I didn’t know how to react.”

His teammates knew what to do. The players on the court mobbed him. As soon as the whistle sounded for a TV timeout, the Cats on the bench sprinted onto the floor to join the celebration. The Rupp Arena fans, already in a frenzy, took it up another notch.

Edwards said afterward that he tries to block out crowd noise during games. When told of the roar that happened in that moment, he was oblivious — “I was kind of zoned out” — but thankful.

“It just shows that they support me, too,” he said.

When Edwards’ interview session began, a familiar face was standing at the back of the media scrum, craning his neck to see around the TV cameras, trying to get a question in himself.

It was Sheppard, who asked his teammate what it was like to have a perfect night. After his fellow freshman walked away to answer his own questions, Edwards nodded in his direction. He said Sheppard had introduced him to a mental health coach earlier in the season. It helped. He said he’d been reading books about overcoming mental health struggles and trying to drive out negative thoughts. That’s helped, too.

“Everyone struggles mentally,” Sheppard said a few minutes later. “And it’s a hard thing not to struggle with. So I just wanted to help him and get him to think positively, instead of thinking negative. And I think he’s done that. I think he looks a lot more positive. He’s happy. He’s smiling. So seeing him on the court having fun and enjoying playing is really exciting for me, for sure.”

Sheppard said there are times when he sees Edwards, thinks he might be down, and simply tells him to smile. It goes both ways.

“That’s kind of our joke with each other — any time one of us isn’t smiling, the other one tells him to smile,” Sheppard said. “Just stay having fun, and don’t lose the enjoyment of playing basketball.”

Edwards already lost it once. He’s talked about wanting to quit basketball early in his high school career, when the competition around him got better and times on the court got tougher. He had long talks with his mother, who listened, comforted, and then told him to stick with it. There were more of those talks over the past few months. Again, he stayed the course.

Edwards now has a tattoo that reads “Don’t Quit” — a nod to those days when he almost did.

But he didn’t then, and he hasn’t now. And there he was Saturday night, the unlikely star of perhaps Kentucky’s greatest show in an uneven but plenty entertaining season.

Antonio Reeves scored 24 points. Zvonimir Ivisic set a new career high with 18 points. Dillingham and Sheppard and others had their highlights, too, the Cats shooting 63.1% from the field, 54.2% from 3-point range and running Alabama out of the gym with a dazzling offensive performance.

Calipari subbed Edwards out of the game three separate times in the final 10 minutes. All three times, the Rupp Arena crowd met his exit with a rousing ovation, thinking it might be the last time they saw him that night.

On one of those occasions, Calipari egged them on, pumping both fists over his head as Edwards walked down the bench, slapping hands with teammates and coaches.

After the game, after he explained the mental health struggles he’d been fighting through all season, Edwards was asked if he had a message for anyone going through their own hard times.

“Just stay the course,” he said. “It’s not gonna rain forever.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari celebrates as guard Justin Edwards (1), who scored a career-high 28 points, comes out of the game against Alabama.
Kentucky coach John Calipari celebrates as guard Justin Edwards (1), who scored a career-high 28 points, comes out of the game against Alabama.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards, right, scored a career-high 28 points and was 10-for-10 from the field against Alabama in Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards, right, scored a career-high 28 points and was 10-for-10 from the field against Alabama in Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) makes a 3-pointer against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky guard Justin Edwards (1) makes a 3-pointer against Alabama during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

Next game

No. 17 Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 19-8 (9-5 SEC), Mississippi State 19-8 (8-6)

Series: Kentucky leads 102-21

Last meeting: Kentucky won 90-77 on Jan. 17, 2024, in Rupp Arena

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