LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari was headed into the Kentucky locker room at halftime Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena when he felt someone’s heaving breath on his neck.
“I thought someone was going to get an ambulance,” Calipari said.
It was sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones, who had just finished a strong first half off the bench by winning a scramble for the ball on the floor. To hear the 6-foot-10 forward tell it, he was just a little winded.
To hear Calipari exaggerate it: “Sacha got exhausted. Sacha almost passed out in the hallway at halftime when he came off the court.”
The coach grinned as he said this, after a 79-70 win over Harvard in which Killeya-Jones delivered a career-high 9 points to go with 2 blocks and 2 rebounds in 18 minutes. Freshman 7-footer Nick Richards added 9 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 20 minutes — a potent one-two punch inside that helped offset the Crimson making a dozen 3-pointers.
There was even one short stretch in the first half where Killeya-Jones and Richards played together, the former at the four and latter at the five.
“Sacha’s been playing a lot of that in practice,” Calipari said. “As a matter of fact, he’s playing a lot more of that than he’s playing in Nick’s space. But yeah, we can do [play them together]. We can be really big then. Now all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Holy cow, we are big.’ ”
That was the most positive development from a day when the seventh-ranked Wildcats (7-1) saw a 20-point lead dwindle to single digits late because of lackluster perimeter defense.
Killeya-Jones is averaging 11.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per 40 minutes this season — after not logging a single minute in UK’s final 18 games last season.
He had 40 points, 31 rebounds and 10 blocks his entire freshman year compared to 39 points, 35 rebounds and 10 blocks through eight games as a sophomore. So forgive the guy if he’s wheezing a bit after an extended run.
“I guess I was kind of breathing down his neck,” Killeya-Jones said of the exchange with Calipari in the tunnel at halftime, “so he started saying, ‘Oh, he’s dying!’ I feel like I’m in decent shape. I was definitely tired the last couple minutes of the first half, but I wasn’t about to pass out.”
To the contrary, he looked nimble in finishing off tough buckets in the paint and challenging Harvard shots at the rim. He dove for loose balls and tipped one of them to teammate Kevin Knox for the easiest two of his game-high 20 points Saturday.
Likewise, Richards was in full beast mode early against the Crimson. He ripped down an offensive rebound — after his own miss — and nearly ripped down the rim with the ensuing dunk, all over a Harvard player. He screamed in his victim’s face and drew a technical foul.
“We were fine with it,” Knox said. “That’s something we need from him down low. You gotta have a temper, get mean sometimes, because it’s going to get physical down there. Nick don’t really do that much, but it was good to see that side of him.”
After a painfully slow start to his season, Richards is hitting his stride: 26.5 points, 16.5 rebounds and 4 blocks per 40 minutes the last four games. That’ll do.
“If we can get [Richards and Killeya-Jones] to play together, that would be really good for us,” Knox said. “Nick is starting to fill in and do what he needs to do: rebounding and hitting those hook shots, blocking shots, dunking all that stuff. He’s starting to realize who he is. And then Sacha’s just hustling like Cal wants him to do: energy, defense and rebounds.
“[When they] block shots, we get those fast break points. That’s what we need because that’s what we’re best at.”
This Kentucky team, leaning exclusively on six freshmen and three sophomores, still has so much to learn and fix. But if individual players begin to blossom and each of those pieces starts clicking into place, these Wildcats could play with the best teams in America.
Or at the very least, be breathing down their neck.