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February 2, 2013

Cats struggle to close, but beat A&M in overtime

COLLEGE STATION, Texas - That magician Elston Turner had a shot in the air that could have forced a second overtime Saturday between his Texas A&M team and Kentucky at Reed Arena.

It looked good as he rose up.

It didn't go down.

"It was real deep, but he's capable of making it," Kentucky guard Julius Mays said of Turner's potential game-tying three-pointer. "We're just glad that he didn't."

Because it didn't, the Wildcats held on to beat the Aggies 72-68 in overtime, getting some measure of revenge for a loss - and a 40-point performance from Turner - earlier this season at Rupp Arena.

More importantly, Kentucky (15-6, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) won its third straight game - and got its fourth conference road win - and kept making progress toward the corner it's trying to turn.

The Cats had won at No. 16 Ole Miss on Tuesday to faint praise from coach John Calipari, who conceded that it was a significant win but practically begged his team to follow it with another, a feat at which UK had failed earlier this season when it went flat at Alabama after winning at Auburn.

"He just said we got to keep it going, we got to build on it," said forward Nerlens Noel, who equaled Mays' team-high 19 points Saturday. "This is the part of the season where we really want to break through and establish how we want to play and who we want to be in March."

Kentucky took another step toward finding that identity at Reed Arena.

But it also showed the multiple personalities that have plagued it most of the season.

The Cats can be dominant in stretches. They led the Aggies (13-8, 3-5) by as many as 13 points in the first half and had an eight-point lead with 3:31 to play in regulation.

But Kentucky also can show its youth in stretches.

Though the Cats did a good job on Turner for the most part - he made 7-of-23 shots to get 21 points - they lost him at key times and allowed him to split a double-team in the closing seconds of regulation to hit a jumper to tie the game.

And UK committed six turnovers in the final 2:07 of regulation - it had 19 in the game - spurring the Aggies to a 10-2 run that sent the game to an extra session.

"The biggest thing is, when teams make runs at us, we don't have a swagger," Calipari said. "We have none. As a matter of fact, we almost look defeated."

But for all the bending Kentucky did, it never broke. There was, for Calipari, some solace in that.

The Wildcats led 9-0 out of the gate, and A&M never took the lead. The game was tied only three times in 45 minutes of play.

"It was always they tied it or (got) within one, and could never get over that hump," Mays said. "It was good for us, but I think it probably did hurt them some psychologically."

And in overtime, Kentucky showed some toughness.

Twice, UK players were fouled rebounding Aggie misses in the extra period because they'd established strong position under the basket.

After shooting 4-of-8 from the free-throw line in the first half, the Cats were 11-for-16 in the second and 8-for-10 in overtime. UK struggled to slam the door, but never let A&M break through it.

"They made a couple runs, but Coach Cal emphasized always being able to get past the runs, just know any good team is going to make a run here and there," Noel said. "When it's gut-check time, you got to stay focused and gather up with your teammates and cut it down and just execute."

After the game, Calipari said he told his team "There were 150 games today and 150 teams lost. We weren't one of 'em. So move on, next game."

With two straight home games - Tuesday against South Carolina and Saturday against Auburn - before a Feb. 12 visit to No. 4 Florida, the Cats have a chance to build some momentum.

"They have the making of a good team," A&M coach Billy Kennedy said.

In the race to find that team, Saturday wasn't the leap forward Calipari would have liked.

But it was a step in the right direction.

"We're winning games, 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."


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