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John Clay

John Clay: How a Marvel movie performance saved Kentucky's teetering season

LEXINGTON, Ky. — There comes a moment in every college basketball team’s season in which the boat is rocking. It’s either going to capsize, throwing everyone into the water, or it’s going to find its way upright and into smoother sailing ahead.

Kentucky faced such a moment Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. A week earlier, the Big Blue battleship had been torpedoed by lowly South Carolina. Four days after that, John Calipari’s crew had emerged from the drink to execute a total turnaround with a 63-56 upset of archrival and fifth-ranked Tennessee in Knoxville. Now, here at halftime, the dark skies of regression had reappeared. UK trailed Georgia 42-34.

It was then that, just in the nick of time, up stepped the captain of the Good Ship Wildcat, a sweet smile of a fellow named Oscar Tshiebwe.

“Oscar was a video game,” said Calipari after his 6-foot-9 star put on a performance reminiscent of his national player of the year season of a year ago, scoring a ridiculous 37 points and grabbing a ridiculous 24 rebounds in the Cats’ come-from-behind 85-71 victory over the Bulldogs.

Actually, Oscar saved the season. A home loss to Georgia and the Wildcats would have slipped right back into the deep pit of self-doubt suffered one week before, trying to figure out how they could have lost at home to a scrappy but hardly special SEC opponent. Instead, Tuesday’s triumph built on the momentum gained from vanquishing the Vols on Rocky Top.

And let’s be honest here, Oscar had not been Oscar. Not the Oscar we’d known. Pre-Georgia, he’d been good, not great. He’d play well at times, disappeared at others. No doubt his preseason knee surgery had affected not just his play, but his mental state.

“(The doctor) just said take it slow, slow, slow,” he said Tuesday.

Against Georgia, however, Oscar was a Marvel movie hero. He clicked into beast mode when the Cats needed beast mode. Tshiebwe scored Kentucky’s first nine points of the second half as a 12-3 UK run quickly erased Georgia’s halftime lead. It was a whole different ballgame after that.

And he kept going. With 15:35 to play, Oscar had scored 25 points. With 7:55 to play, he swiped a Georgia pass at mid-court and dribbled in for the solo jam. With 5:46 left, Oscar had scored 30 points. His dunk off a rebound with 1:09 remaining gave Kentucky an 81-68 lead and Oscar 37 points for a night of nights.

“There was one time where there was like four dudes on him and he just went up and got an and-one,” said teammate Antonio Reeves, the first-year transfer from Illinois State. “I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, this man is going wild. He’s going crazy out there.’ He surprised me because I’d never really seen him go crazy like that.”

Consider this: Tshiebwe drew 12 Georgia fouls on the night. He made the Dogs pay by sinking 13 of 18 free throws. Oscar also snatched 11 offensive rebounds to go with his 13 defensive rebounds.

A key to this two-game turnaround has been UK’s ability to keep the opponent off its offensive glass. In Knoxville, Tennessee managed to grab just four of its 34 offensive rebound opportunities for 16 percent. Georgia entered Tuesday night 22nd nationally in offensive rebound percentage at 35.1. Georgia exited with just four offensive rebounds in 32 opportunities for a measly 12.5 percent.

It was just a week ago, after the South Carolina debacle, in which Tshiebwe called out his teammates for a lack of “fight,” without realizing he was calling out his teammates. “He knows six languages, but English might be the sixth,” Calipari said.

Tshiebwe apologized. Apology accepted. Then Calipari told his star player that maybe Oscar needed to play more like a star player. Message received.

“What he’s done for two weeks, he’s been in the gym,” Calipari said. “For a while he was in the gym, but (it was) not the same.”

Tuesday night was different. A different Oscar. A different outcome. Result: A different Kentucky basketball team than just one week ago, one that looks like it just might stay afloat.

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