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Kentucky proves road warrior at A&M

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Cats won again on Saturday, but it was a dogfight.

John Calipari tried to help a shot go in the basket during UK's win at Texas A&M (TCP/Darrell Bird)

“Everything is a dogfight,” coach John Calipari said in the aftermath of Kentucky’s 72-68 overtime victory at Texas A&M. “But I was happy. I told them there were 150 games today and 150 teams lost, and we weren’t one of them. Move on. Next game.”

Calipari said he has much to be concerned with as Kentucky finished with 19 turnovers and lost a second-half lead before winning in OT. But at the end of the day, he is impressed.

“To win on the road in overtime like we did with all those young kids playing? That’s a heck of a thing, now,” Calipari said. “We just played four out of five on the road ... with this team. We survived.”

Kentucky didn’t just win on the road, this young team is growing up.

Consider that the first road game was an impressive rout of Auburn only to be followed by a complete collapse in a four-point loss at Alabama that could have fractured a young team’s fragile psyche. Then after a home win over LSU, Kentucky raced ahead of Ole Miss in Oxford only to see a 17-point lead vanish before going on its own 14-2 run to win the game. The road trip concluded Saturday at Reed Arena where Kentucky again lost its lead, but battled back to win in overtime against a team that had already beaten them at Rupp Arena.

“We’re winning games while we’re figuring out how to win,” Calipari said. “I like that we’re young and have a chance to be really good. I wish they were coming faster, but I also want them to enjoy wins. I just don’t know the last time a team this young goes on the road and wins. A team that wins four of its first five road games in the league.

“You can say, ‘This team is this and that.’ Well, we’re not that skilled,” the coach said. “But what they’re doing is figuring it out. It’s their habits and their mindsets that we’re trying to change, and that takes time. Hopefully, a couple of years, not one.”

Texas A&M guard Elston Turner, who erupted for 40 points in the Aggies’ win in Lexington on Jan. 12, sees a definite change in Kentucky.

“They’re more confident,” he said. “They’re looking like they’re starting to gel as a team. They’re playing with more poise now than the first time we played.”

Calipari, of course, stills sees a long journey ahead for his Cats.

“We are what we are,” Calipari said. “We’ve showed signs of getting better, but the biggest thing is that when teams make a run at us, we just don’t have a swagger about us. We have none. As a matter of fact, we almost look defeated.

“That’s all I’ve been talking about,” Calipari continued. “I don’t even watch game tape with them. It has nothing to do with that. We’re telling them what should be in your mind if you miss a shot. The negative thoughts in your mind, how do you get them out? Adversity hits you, how do you deal with it? This is all life skills. I’ve got a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds and this is what they need more than basketball.”

Calipari can teach life skills. Teams like Texas A&M will educate UK on basketball.

“That was a physical game,” Calipari said. “They were rough with our guards. They were rough with our big people. It was body to body. But that’s what we need. We need teams to make runs at us. We need teams to physically come at us so we can learn how we have to play.

“That exact same thing happened to last year’s team and when our guys figured out we could negate that kind of play, we became the team to beat. If we had not gone through that, there’s no way we would’ve won the national title. It wouldn’t have happened.”

Nobody is talking about a national championship just yet for 2013, but following up a courageous victory at Ole Miss with a gritty win at Texas A&M is huge for this squad.

“We had to build on it,” freshman Nerlens Noel said. “This is the time of the season where we want to break through, establish how we want to play and who we want to be in March.”

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