MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Kevin Knox blamed “freshman mistakes” for Kentucky trailing by 17 points at No. 7 West Virginia. On a roster packed with freshmen, that made virtually everyone accountable.
While Knox’s 34-point outburst will be remembered as the catalyst for the 83-76 comeback, his band of rookie teammates made their own blue-ribbon contributions, particularly on the glass.
A 29-13 rebounding edge in the second half resurrected the Wildcats (16-5) and gave the SEC its first win over the Big 12 in their five-year challenge series.
“We kept fighting and we got stops,” Knox said after making 11-of-17 shots overall and 5-of-8 from 3-point range. Nineteen of his points came after halftime, including the go-ahead 3 with 1:10 left that put Kentucky ahead to stay, 77-74.
“They took some bad shots, we got some rebounds and next thing we know we’re down two. Then next thing you know we’re up.”
Jevon Carter matched Knox for most of the night, but ultimately his 26 points and seven assists weren’t enough to save West Virginia (16-5) from another collapse in their home arena. Two weeks after they squandered a 16-point lead against Kansas, this one had the feeling of deja blue.
The turnaround crushed a roaring, sellout crowd hungry to experience Kentucky’s first trip to Morgantown in 47 seasons.
The Wildcats’ recent lapse out of the AP Top 25 didn’t change the fact their program is loaded with elite NBA-caliber prospects, several of whom stepped up to erase a 50-33 deficit early in the second half.
“The truth of the matter is is they’re just better than we are,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “They’re more talented.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari — who told his players at halftime ‘We’re in good shape” despite 11 turnovers and a 15-point hole — described it as a coming-of-age victory.
“To come on the road and be down 17 in this environment against a top-10 team, and us playing so many freshmen, it means we’re growing up,” he said.
West Virginia reserve Beetle Bolden finished with 17 points on 5-of-10 shooting from 3, a much-awaited performance by the Covington, Ky., native against the home-state Wildcats he grew up adoring.
Bolden’s transition 3 leveled the game for sixth time at 74-all — a deadlock that lasted only 16 seconds until Knox got loose on the opposite to deliver the go-ahead counterpunch from the wing.
“Honestly, it’s very disappointing,” Bolden said. “I wanted this game a lot. Can’t get it back now.”
The sophomore wasn’t eager to glorify the bluebood Wildcats, saying that Texas — a team WVU cold-cocked by 35 points last week — was equally athletic.
“It was one person, really, Kevin Knox. He was on fire,” Bolden said.
Knox’s previous season-high was 25 points against UIC in November. The stakes and the stage were considerably larger and louder this time. As the 6-foot-9 forward made baskets that put Kentucky ahead three times in the final 11 minutes, he barked at defenders.
“I love playing away games. The other team yelling, hype, the student section — all that gets me going,” Knox said. “I was hitting some big shots today so I had to talk a little trash because they were talking trash to us. I had to go back at ’em.”
Huggins was at a loss to explain his defenders losing Kentucky’s top scorer: “The whole idea was don’t leave Knox and I don’t think we even knew where he was.”
Sagaba Konate had 13 points and seven energizing blocks for the Mountaineers, but missed the front end of a one-and-one with 46 seconds left and WVU trailing by three.
Kentucky didn’t miss any of its second-half free throws, going 18-of-18 to defy its 260th national ranking the foul line (68 percent).
When Nick Richards’ putback dunk extended the margin to 79-74 at the 26-second mark, Kentucky had deflated the Coliseum.
Richards grabbed eight boards, joining Jarred Vanderbilt with 11 and Wenyen Gabriel’s nine and to fuel a 49-34 rebounding edge.
“Whoever was the toughest team ended up with the win,” Richards said. “We fought for offensive rebounds. We got this ‘W’ just because of second-chance points.”