LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Be careful what you wish for, they say. You just might get it.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said his team needed to get pushed around by a physical opponent like Morehead State prior to Wednesday’s game at Rupp Arena. Little did he know the Eagles had more in mind than just being a sparring partner for the No. 8 Wildcats. They almost spoiled Calipari’s holiday.
“I was thinking it's going to be a long Thanksgiving,” said Calipari, whose team trailed by as many as 11 points in the first half and did not recapture the lead for good until six and a half minutes had elapsed in the second half.
On the strength of Archie Goodwin’s career-high 28 points, Kentucky (3-1) eventually pulled away for a hard-fought 81-70 victory over the Eagles, but not before former UK point guard Sean Woods put a good scare into the crowd of 21,897 and left the Wildcats battered and bruised with a style of play just short of “Fight Club.”
"My guys battled tonight against a great team on their home floor," said Woods, who starred at UK on the "Unforgettables" team that pushed Duke to the wire in the classic 1992 East Regional final. "We gave them everything we had, we just couldn’t hold on. You’ve got to tip your hat off to Kentucky for sustaining, taking our blows and finding a way to win."
Morehead State (3-2) was whistled for 32 team fouls on the night, a figure that many observers believed could have been much higher in what was a loosely-officiated game for one half. Two Eagles fouled out and five others finished with three or more fouls. The Cats weathered the constant harassment fairly well, shooting 51 percent (24 of 47) from the field and hitting 31 of 41 free throw attempts.
“I’m always sore after games because I try to play hard,” said UK freshman forward Alex Poythress, who battled through the rough play for 20 points and eight rebounds. “But this was physical out there.
“This will help us in the long run. We know teams are going to try to push us and be physical and try to throw us off our game. We’ve got to match it.”
Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel, who had a stat-stuffing line that included nine points, 11 rebounds, six blocked shots and three steals, said Morehead State was the most physical team that the Cats have faced to date. “They knew they weren’t as talented, so they knew that was the only chance they had to win or stay in the game.”
Asked if there was a thin line between rough and dirty play, Noel paused and grinned before offering, “Yeah. It was rough.”
Woods said his team reflects the passion he had as a player and still maintains on the sidelines. "They look just like me, right? They see me every day, and that’s how we’re going to be every day. We’re going to fight. Nothing’s given to us. We’re considered underdogs even in our own conference. Every day we step out in practice and in games we have got to have a chip on our shoulders that we have something to prove.”
Down the stretch, however, it was Kentucky proving that it could summon enough toughness of its own to hold off the Eagles.
Two free throws by Noel tied the game at 48 with 13:28 remaining. They also started a 14-4 run the Cats to seize control. Senior guard Julius Mays hit a 3-pointer, a layup and two free throws during the key stretch for Kentucky. He finished with 11 points, UK's third scorer in double-figures on the night.
Morehead State pulled within six points, 67-61, on a Devon Atkinson jumper with 6:35 remaining, but could get no closer in the final minutes. The Eagles had to play the final four minutes without star swingman Milton Chavis, who left the game with cramps. He had scored a team-high 23 points at that point on 9-fo-15 shooting.
He wasn’t the only one who was physically tapped out. Goodwin also had to get a piggy-back ride to the UK bench from Mays late in the game after cramping as well.
Calipari seemed mostly pleased with how his young Cats responded to the challenge.
“I didn't know and hadn't seen these guys in this environment," he said. "You have to understand, I'm learning about my team, and they've got to be thrown in situations like this. We need another team to play a zone the whole game. We need another team to do what this (MSU) team does, foul you and get up into you and grab you. I know there is one more we're playing, there may be a couple."
Calipari was not-so-subtlety alluding to a Dec. 29 date with Woods' old UK mentor, Rick Pitino, and the No. 2 Louisville Cardinals.
After spending Thanksgiving at Calipari's home and going to see the movie "Lincoln" as a team, the Cats return to action Friday at Rupp Arena against Long Island. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET.