Kentucky offense stalls without sparkplug Wheeler in loss to Tigers

Published 10:42 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Kentucky struggled without its point guard and couldn’t recover with a makeshift lineup in a 65-60 loss at LSU Tuesday night.

The team’s downfall began after point guard Sahvir Wheeler went down with an undisclosed injury after running into a screen by LSU’s Elton Reid nearly four minutes into the contest, forcing the Wildcats (11-3, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) to use a variety of combinations in an effort to counter Wheeler’s absence for the remainder of the contest.

“He’s the engine on this thing,” coach John Calipari said of Wheeler. “He gets us all moving.”

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Calipari didn’t know the extent of Wheeler’s injury but liked the way the Wildcats battled without their leader.

“I loved it,” he said. “We also had a couple of guys not play well on top of foul trouble, injuries, and all that other stuff and they didn’t stop. They kept playing. We had funky lineups in that we had never used before … but guys fought and that’s all you can ask.”

The loss ended a four-game winning streak by the Wildcats who fell to 0-2 on the season in true road games. Overall, Kentucky is 1-3 in games played away from Lexington, with setbacks to Duke, Notre Dame, and LSU.

“Not every day we can beat Kentucky. So, that’s good,” LSU coach Wade said. “But the reality is we’ve got a good team, too. The problem is around here we act all crazy when we do stuff.

“Our expectation here is to win at the top of the SEC,” Wade continued. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to win some big games at home and this is certainly one of those.”

TyTy Washington stepped in for Wheeler, but also went to the locker room in the second half for a stint, while Davion Mintz was thrust into the point-guard slot. Mintz scored five straight points in a span of 35 seconds to help the Wildcats pull within 61-60 with less than a minute remaining. But just as it did in the last road loss at Notre Dame on Dec. 11, Kentucky collapsed in the closing seconds as the Tigers (13-1, 1-1) converted two easy baskets on a pair of turnovers for the final margin.

The finish, Calipari said, was disappointing, but he also cited his team’s outing in the first half as also a letdown.

“We had a lot of guys — it was almost like they were intimidated by the game,” he said. “You can’t play at Kentucky if you’re intimidated by a game. You’ve just gotta go — play.”

If playing without Wheeler wasn’t hard enough, Kentucky was without Oscar Tshiebwe for most of the first half because of foul trouble. Despite the absence of two starters, Jacob Toppin provided a boost for the Wildcats off the bench scoring 13 points and grabbing four rebounds In an eight-minute span.

Feeding off the performance by Toppin’s first-half performance, the Wildcats sank six 3-pointers and turned a five-point halftime deficit into a 50-41 advantage with 12 minutes remaining. Despite the hot start, the Wildcats cooled off and could only watch as the Tigers outscored the guests 20-2. Kentucky managed just three points in an 11-minute span but made things interesting down the stretch.

“For what we did and how we played to be in the game — I hate losing,” he said. “… We played with whoever was left and we were trying to win the game, trying to do anything I could (to win the game). They hung in (there) and gave themselves a chance.”

Mintz led the Wildcats with 16 points, followed by Toppin with 14 and Kellen Grady with 13. Kentucky made just one 3-pointer on 11 attempts in the first half, but made seven in the second half, including four by Grady early in the last half.

Gametracker: Georgia at Kentucky, 6 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytodaycom and via twitter at keithtaylor21.