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No. 19 Kentucky finally arrives in dominant win over No. 9 North Carolina

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It took six weeks for us to get here, but No. 19 Kentucky has finally done something this season that would make you believe that this was a team that could make a run to the Final Four.

Sparked by 22 points from Keldon Johnson and 20 points from Reid Travis, the Wildcats put together their most impressive performance of the season, beating No. 9 North Carolina 80-72 in a game where the Tar Heels never seemed to truly find a footing.

The final spread was just eight points, but this game never really felt that close. Kentucky opened up a double-digit lead late in the first half, took a 40-31 lead into the break and UNC never got closer than four in the second half. The Wildcats had an answer every time there was a Kentucky surge.

Here are three things that we can take away from the nightcap of the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago:

1. THIS IS THE KENTUCKY THAT WE HAVE BEEN WAITING ALL SEASON TO SEE

I don’t think that I can say it enough: This was a really, really impressive performance from Kentucky, one that should strike fear in the hearts of SEC foes and whoever sees their name in the same side of a bracket as the Wildcats.

Let’s start with Keldon Johnson, who did all the things that you would expect a star to do. He finished with 23 points, three boards and three assists, helping Ashton Hagans hold North Carolina’s backcourt in check throughout the afternoon. Reid Travis is going to get plenty of plaudits for his 20 points, six boards and three assists, but just as impressive was the performance from P.J. Washington, who finished with 11 points, nine boards and eight assists. Even Tyler Herro, who has yet to really get it going this season, knocked down three threes and hit a handful of big, momentum-changing shots.

The real difference between Saturday night and every other game that Kentucky has played this season came on the defensive end of the floor. They entered Saturday ranked 52nd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They ended Saturday holding North Carolina — the nation’s second-most efficient offense, according to KenPom — to 72 points on 83 possessions. They allowed the nation’s fifth-best offensive rebounding team to get just five offensive boards. On the season, UNC’s offensive rebounding percentage is 39.8. On Saturday, it was 13.2.

Kentucky scored enough to keep UNC out of transition, and they turned their halfcourt defense up to a level that we have not yet seen this season.

That’s where this win came from, and the credit for that belongs to a 6-foot-3 freshman from Cartersville, Georgia.

2. IS ASHTON HAGANS THIS YEAR’S SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER?

Just two days after we saw Duke’s Tre Jones turn in one of the most dominant defensive performances of the year, Ashton Hagans staked his claim to the title of best on-ball defender in college basketball with a scintillating defensive performance.

While holding North Carolina point guard Coby White to eight points, two assists and three turnovers on 3-for-11 shooting, Hagans stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of seven steals and three blocks to go along with his seven points, four boards and three assists. It’s only fitting that, on the final possession of the game, Hagans just a passing lane in the backcourt, gave the ball back to UNC after being forced try and make a save and ended up behind the play before eventually getting his steal and calling a game-clinching timeout along the sideline.

We have been waiting all season for someone to emerge from the morass and takeover as Kentucky’s star point guard, and it looks like Hagans is going to be that guy.

He still has some very real question marks on the offensive side of the ball — his five turnovers on Saturday were the most of any player on the floor — but for a team that needed an answer defensively as much as anything else, Hagans is it.

3. NORTH CAROLINA GOES AS COBY WHITE GOES

White looked very much like a freshman on Saturday night. He finished with just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting, totally ineffective going up against an elite on-ball defender like Hagans. It’s the same thing that happened to White when he went up against Zavier Simpson in Ann Arbor, a game that the Tar Heels lost by 17 points despite leading by 10 midway through the first half.

With the only other point guard option on the roster being Seventh Woods and without the presence of a playmaker like Theo Pinson, this is White’s team to lead. He’s a freshman, and sometimes freshman play like freshman. The problem for North Carolina — and one of the reasons that I think Luke Maye has gotten off to a slow start this season — is that if White isn’t making plays for UNC, no one is going to be. They don’t really have a guy that makes everyone else on the court better.

The result is that much of their offense is based around players creating for themselves. White can do that well even if he is somewhat streaky. Cam Johnson can free himself up for looks from the perimeter. But that’s not exactly Maye’s forte.

The long and short of it is this: UNC is going to be a team that has a bigger gap between their ceiling and their floor, and it stems from just how reliant they are going to be their freshman.

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

 

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

 

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

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