NASSAU, Bahamas – The Big Blue Bahamas beatdowns ended in Kentucky’s second game against Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, but as far as UK is concerned, everyone went home a winner Saturday.
The fans got a close contest in the Bahamas for the first time in five games, UK got its victory, and on a trip that’s supposed to be about learning, John Calipari found out in a 75-71 nail-biting win that his team still has the same heart and the same late-game toughness that defined the Cats during their magical 2014 postseason run.
“We actually needed a test,” said assistant coach Barry “Slice” Rohrssen. “This was good for us. We’re learning a lot about our team. And maybe as important, they’re learning a lot about themselves. This was a game that we needed.”
Entrenched in a back-and-forth battle, freshman point guard Tyler Ulis sealed the Cats’ fifth victory in five tries with a steal and layup with 1:08 left on the clock.
The diminutive point guard, who gave up at least a few inches and several pounds to Lionel Chalmers, hounded the Champagne point guard as he brought the ball with just over a minute left and Kentucky clinging to a 75-72 lead.
Chalmers appeared to get visibly frustrated when he crossed half court and no foul was called, but Ulis never backed off. Instead of relaxing and resetting, Ulis, like a defensive pest, got on Chalmers’ backside, made him dribble to his right, and out went Chalmers’ legs.
By the time Chalmers looked up from the court he had just slipped on, Ulis was halfway to the other basket, racing by himself to an easy layup and another UK victory. The play earned a standing ovation from Calipari in the bleachers.
“That’s what he does,” Rohrssen said. “He wears you down. He’s got quick feet and a big heart.”
Ulis finished the game with 12 points, three assists and two steals. The quickly emerging fan favorite – who wasn’t available after the game for an interview – ensured the Cats will finish their study abroad trip in the Bahamas with an opportunity to go undefeated.
“He’s going up against somebody that has a lot more games under his belt, but Tyler has a big heart and he made a big play,” Rohrssen said.
Rohrssen, who made his head-coaching debut for UK as Calipari continued to watch and evaluate from the stands, made the decision to keep Ulis in the game when he went away from the two-platoon system with only a few minutes left and the Cats leading by just a few points. Ulis stayed in with Marcus Lee when the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson re-entered the game
The gut move by Rohrssen turned out to be the right one.
“I actually didn’t want to get voted off the island tonight, you know?” said Rohrssen, who left Pittsburgh for Kentucky in May. “But we thought maybe we’ll just go with some experience and some people that have been in some situations like that before. Again, we’re finding out about ourselves. We thought that the substitutions that we did make gave us the right lineup and put us in the best position at the end of a close game.”
UK found itself in a close game for the first time during its exhibition tour in Nassau, Bahamas. After winning its four previous games by an average of 23.8 points, including a 23-rout of this same Champagne team on Tuesday, the Cats could never pull away in this one.
They led by as many as nine points in the first half and by eight in the second, but the first-division professional team from France was up for the challenge on Saturday and appeared bent on getting a little retribution.
Champagne, which featured a monster game from former Syracuse star Daryl Watkins (20 points) and a solid supporting performance from former LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell (11 points, seven rebounds), actually led 44-43 at halftime. It was the first time UK had trailed at half during the exhibition tour and, quite frankly, the only time during the trip the Cats had fell behind outside the first few minutes of the game.
“When you play somebody again so quickly and the result that we had in the first game, you don’t want their pride to beat any arrogance we may have. We needed to guard against that,” Rohrssen said. “The team we played today, even though they had the same roster, was actually a different team. Everybody in the building saw that. They’ve had some more practices, they had a lot more offensive actions and sets than they ran the other day, and they came out with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, which you would expect men – grown men – to do.”
Some of it, too, could be attributed to playing five games in seven days. The Cats were slow to get started, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes. They also allowed Champagne to shoot 73.1 percent in the first half because of eight turnovers and shaky transition defense.
“That is a lot of games in a very short period of time for us, but there’s a reason why this trip is set up the way it is,” Rohrssen said. “We knew before we got on that plane that we had six games to play, so there aren’t going to be any excuses on our part. Excuses are just bricks that build a road to failure. … We’re not laying those bricks down right now.”
UK appeared to be taking control of the game when it went on a 9-0 run midway through the first half, but Champagne clawed within two and never let Kentucky get any more than six points ahead the rest of the way as the two teams traded shot for shot.
Ultimately, Kentucky held on thanks to Ulis’ big play.
“He stayed yard for yard, foot for foot, inch for inch and disrupted their offense and turned it into a turnover for them and an easy basket for him and a score that we needed at the end,” Rohrssen said.
UK got big contributions down the stretch from Aaron Harrison (team-high 15 points), Andrew Harrison (11 points, seven assists) and Devin Booker (10 points). Booker, who entered the game just 6 for 23 from the floor on the trip, hit two of his three 3-point shots Saturday.
“Almost like (riding) a bicycle,” Rohrssen said. “You get knocked off the bike and you just got to get back on that bike and start pedaling again. It was good to see him have some more success today, as we go forward and prepare for our final game of this trip tomorrow.”