COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — No. 9 Kentucky won its fifth Southeastern Conference regular-season title in coach John Calipari’s eight seasons on Saturday. He was hardly ready to celebrate.
“We haven’t peaked yet,” he said following the Wildcats’ 71-63 victory at Texas A&M. “That’s the good news. The bad news is – we haven’t peaked yet.”
Kentucky certainly appeared to be at peak performance in the second half against A&M, but that’s part of what’s troubling Calipari. The Wildcats overcame an early 15-point deficit to claim the SEC title outright.
A game earlier the Wildcats had rallied from 19 down to finally upend Vanderbilt. Kentucky on four occasions has come back from double-digit deficits this season.
“We’ve been trying to fix it,” said freshman guard De’Aaron Fox, who led the Wildcats with 19 points, including 15 in the second half. “We picked up our intensity throughout the game, and this time actually took the lead before halftime, and kept it going throughout the rest of the game.”
The Aggies (16-14, 8-10) leaped to a 19-4 lead 8 minutes into the game, as the Wildcats (26-5, 16-2) missed nine of their first 10 shots. A&M’s big lead early only seemed to ignite the Wildcats, as Kentucky closed the first half with a 28-9 run.
Admon Gilder led the Aggies with 22 points and Robert Williams added 20.
The Aggies closed the gap to 55-51 with 6:10 remaining when Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis responded with consecutive baskets, the latter a 3-pointer that bounced off the front of the rim before falling through with 4:13 remaining.
The Wildcats prevailed despite the league’s leading scorer, freshman Malik Monk, finishing with six points on 2-of-10 shooting. He entered the game averaging 21.7 points per game.
“Some games Malik isn’t going to be on,” Willis said. “We can’t always depend on him to have 20-plus scoring games.”
The swifter Wildcats held a 14-4 advantage on the fast break.
“Our guys were ready, and they did what we asked them to do,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “We’ve got to give Kentucky credit, because they never broke.”
Kentucky: It’s business as usual for the Wildcats, who own 48 SEC titles compared to the rest of the league’s 50 total. The Wildcats, riding an eight-game winning streak, are simply working for the highest seeding possible entering the NCAA Tournament.
Texas A&M: The Aggies will need to claim the SEC Tournament title to make their second consecutive NCAA Tournament. Realistically the Aggies are playing for their second NIT bid in three seasons.
STAT OF THE DAY
The Aggies made less than half of their free throws (12 of 25) prompting frustration from Kennedy following the eight-point loss: “Against a Top 10 team, you have to do the little things right.”
Each team recorded five blocks, with Willis leading the Wildcats with three and Tonny Trocha-Morelos with three for the Aggies.
HE SAID IT
“This is all about your (NCAA Tournament) seed. This isn’t about this game. The better your seed, the better chance you have of advancing.” — Calipari on the Wildcats’ schedule leading to the NCAA postseason, including next week’s SEC Tournament.
The Wildcats should easily stay in the Top 10 courtesy of two comeback victories this week, and an eight-game winning streak.
Kentucky: The top-seeded Wildcats will play in the SEC Tournament in Nashville on Friday, the third day of the tournament, against an opponent to be determined.
Texas A&M: The Aggies will play on Thursday in the SEC Tournament as the 10th seed against an opponent to be determined.
More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.