LEXINGTON, Ky. — Challenged by coach John Calipari to show toughness and urgency, No. 21 Kentucky displayed both against a Texas A&M squad determined to win its first Southeastern Conference game.
The short-handed, young Wildcats earned a hard-fought victory with some timely plays on both ends.
PJ Washington made a steal that led to Kevin Knox’s go-ahead layup with 2:28 left, then added four points down the stretch to help Kentucky rally past Texas A&M 74-73 on Tuesday night.
Trailing 59-53 with 8:43 remaining, the Wildcats clawed back to tie the game three times before Washington stole a high Tyler Davis’ pass and fed Knox for a 69-67 lead. Washington, a freshman forward, added a layup between two free throws for a 73-69 edge.
“I wanted him to shoot the 3 but I knew he wasn’t going to do that because they wanted to look for the post-up,” Washington said. “I just waited and jumped up and got a steal, and I saw Kevin and passed to him for an easy layup.”
The Aggies weren’t done despite missed open 3-pointers by D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder. They took advantage of missed Kentucky free throws to get within a point with four seconds left on Robert Williams’ tip-in.
Two Washington misses at the line set up a final chance for Texas A&M, but a court-length inbounds pass sailed out of bounds as time expired.
“As good as you’re going to get,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said of his team’s final chances. “Our best shooters, and we just missed them.”
Hamidou Diallo had 18 points, Washington and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 16 each and Knox got 15 as Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) shot 65 percent after halftime and 56 percent overall to bounce back from last weekend’s loss at No. 24 Tennessee .
Gilgeous-Alexander also had seven rebounds and five assists in 39 minutes while starting in place of Quade Green, who was ruled out just before tipoff because of a back strain.
Though bothered by Texas A&M getting two good looks at the end, Calipari was glad that his team answered a gut check.
“We got closer,” said the coach, who used eight players including his son, Brad. “But that’s still going to be a work in progress. Until we get really good at that, we’re going to be who we are. Every team that plays us is going to have a chance.”
Davis had 21 points and Gilder 14 in his first game back for the Aggies (11-5, 0-4), who shot 50 percent from the field and were nearly even with Kentucky in several areas of the box score but lost their second consecutive one-point game. Texas A&M lost 69-68 to LSU last weekend.
Washington’s performance came days after cramps limited him to 23 minutes in Saturday’s 76-65 loss to the Volunteers. Calipari praised his toughness and added, “He has to take leadership of this team. … If a guy is not doing what he has to do, you have the ability and the right now to tell him.”
Green sat on the bench in a black sweatshirt after being ruled out before the game. The team said that he will be evaluated daily.
Texas A&M: Getting Williams (12 points, eight rebounds) and Gilder back in the lineup after illness and injury respectively was big for the Aggies, especially in the second half. They also outscored Kentucky’s bench 24-7. But they faltered down the stretch to remain the SEC’s lone winless squad. “It’s only going to get better,” said Kennedy, whose team fell out of the Top 25 from 11th last week. “I thought we got better today.”
Kentucky: Green’s absence left the Wildcats with just Gilgeous-Alexander and Diallo among its regular guards. Gilgeous-Alexander effectively filled the void in his third start, making the game’s first basket and then some in his most extensive time with the Wildcats. “I just drank a lot of fluids last night and made sure I was ready,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
Texas A&M visits No. 24 Tennessee on Saturday.
Kentucky visits Vanderbilt on Saturday.