LEXINGTON, Ky. – Their numbers did not leap off the stat sheet like those of teammates Julius Randle and Aaron Harrison, but Dominique Hawkins and Jarrod Polson received as much credit -- and perhaps more -- for Kentucky’s winning effort Saturday against Belmont as any of the Wildcats.
Hawkins and Polson combined for only five points off the bench, but sparked No. 19 Kentucky with their energy in battling back from an 11-point deficit to defeat upset-minded Belmont 93-80 at Rupp Arena.
“I was really proud of Jarrod,” UK coach John Calipari said. “And you say, ‘What did Jarrod add to the game?’ … Energy. Energy. Nothing else. So now you understand what energy does for our team, and if you’re sitting there and you’re not one of the guys playing, you’re saying, ‘Man, I’ve got to play with that energy.’
“What does Dominique add? … Energy and toughness. I put him in for James (Young) and he dives on the floor and gets that ball that basically ends the game.”
A season-high crowd of 24,224 roared with approval as the Wildcats’ homegrown products “did the little things” that add up to winning basketball. Hawkins and Polson each played a season-high 22 and 21 minutes, respectively, against a Belmont squad which had made national headlines earlier this season by knocking off North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“I was surprised," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said of the big contributions from the UK bench. "There was a guy or two that we didn’t have on the scouting report.
"I know for us, when we have a guy who doesn’t get a lot of time and he comes in and plays well and gets things done, it lifts the team up. There are more guys not playing than are playing and all of those unknown guys, when their buddies get in, can make a difference. For that matter, to the regulars, it’s a big deal. They know how hard the guys practice and don’t get to play much. When they come in and contribute it’s a big left for your basketball team.”
Kentucky (9-4) got strong contributions from its stars, too, including a season-high 29 points and 10 rebounds from freshman forward Julius Randle in his ninth double-double of the season. Freshman guard Aaron Harrison added 23 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
“The big difference in the game was Julius Randle,” Byrd said. “If they didn’t have him, I know we could guard them better. He made eight shots and scored 29 points. I don’t know if I can find many games were a guy gets three and a half times the amount of points of shots that he took. We couldn’t stop him from making it except by fouling him. He’s so strong, our guys fouled him and he doesn’t even notice.”
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle was 8-for-10 from the field. He got to the free throw line 19 times, making 13 of them.
Kentucky shot 55 percent from the field (32 of 58) and converted 26 of 36 free throws. The Wildcats also had a decisive 42-25 rebounding margin with sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein adding seven boards to the total.
Still, Kentucky did not hold a lead in the game until the 16:20 mark of the second half when consecutive buckets by Harrison made it 52-48 in favor of the Wildcats. They gradually pulled away from that point on.
All in all, the UK boss liked his team’s defensive effort after a shaky start.
“We fought like heck,” Calipari said. “It’s a hard team to play. They’re going to shoot 30 3s. If they’re making them, you lose. Against (North) Carolina, they made 14. Carolina lost. And if they make 14 against us, we probably lose. We guarded it well enough and kind of got into their legs a little bit.”
Belmont (8-5) hit seven of 18 from behind the arc in the first half in grabbing a 27-16 lead. Kentucky managed to trim the deficit to 43-41 at halftime and held the Bruins to only 4-for-12 shooting from long range in the second half.
Craig Bradshaw and Drew Windler led Belmont with 22 and 21 points, respectively.
• The game marked the first meeting between UK and Belmont.
• UK is now 36-0 against teams currently comprising the Ohio Valley Conference.
• The Wildcats have won 16 consecutive games at Rupp Arena and are 75-2 there under John Calipari.
• Kentucky returns to action Saturday, Dec. 28, against Louisville at Rupp Arena in a matchup between the schools that won the last two national championships.