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After Kentucky basketball win, football tackles Citrus Bowl

For Kentucky, the job is only half done.

On Saturday, Kentucky basketball took down Louisville. New coach, different venue, same result for the Cards. After drubbing interim coach David Padgett by 29 points last season in Rupp Arena, John Calipari and Co. greeted new U of L coach Chris Mack with a methodical 71-58 victory at the KFC Yum Center.

To really ring in the New Year, however, Kentucky football needs to take down Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Tuesday in Orlando. You know, a game played on New Year’s Day, marking the Cats’ first appearance in one of the better bowls since 1999, and just the second since way back in 1951.

Let’s start with a basketball review. Any fears Kentucky might suffer a letdown after last week’s impressive 80-72 win over North Carolina in Chicago were quickly vanished on Saturday in the ‘Ville. The Cats lead practically from start to finish. They shot 50.9 percent, turned it over just nine times and came up with nine steals.

In fact, over the last two games, wins over the Heels and Cards, Kentucky has recorded 21 steals and blocked 16 shots. Sophomore forward PJ Washington was credited with four blocked shots. Freshman guard Ashton Hagans, he of the eight steals at North Carolina, added three more against the Cardinals.

Then there was freshman guard Tyler “Be A” Herro, who scored a career-high 24 points to earn MVP honors. Herro made 10 of 13 shots from the floor, including four of six from three-point range. After missing all six of his three-point attempts in the overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden, Herro is 11 of 20 from beyond the arc in the three games since New York.

“We’re just getting better and better,” Calipari said afterward Saturday.

Indeed, you can see a new-found cohesion with this team that was lacking from that disastrous opener against Duke through much of the lead-up to the North Carolina game. The Cats’ success in Chicago, built a confidence — confidence through demonstrated performance, Calipari would say — that carried over into Saturday at Louisville.

Not to fear, U of L will be back. To this point, Mack has squeezed the most out of his 2018-19 debut edition and he has future reinforcements on the way. Other than shooting 36.4 percent, Louisville didn’t do anything wrong on Saturday. It just lost to the better team.

So now Kentucky football, you’re up. To be honest, even in the week before the Cats-Cards hoops clash, most of the questions I’ve received had to do with Mark Stoops’ troops’ chances in Orlando on Tuesday. UK had no problem selling out its bowl ticket allotment. There appears to be more of a buzz about this postseason game than UK’s previous two.

Winning has plenty to do with that. After all, the Cats are coming off a 9-3 season that included a 5-3 mark. Senior outside linebacker Josh Allen captured numerous national postseason awards. Junior running back Benny Snell rushed for 1,000 yards for the third straight season. And Tuesday will be Big Blue Nation’s final time to see both Allen and Snell in a UK uniform before they head off to the pros.

And Penn State is a marquee opponent with a familiar face at the helm. The Nittany Lions went 9-3 this season with losses to Ohio State (by one), Michigan State (by four) and Michigan (by 35). Senior quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 2,284 yards this year. Junior running back Miles Sanders rushed for 1,223.

Plus, PSU is coached by old friend James Franklin, who went 3-0 against Kentucky during his three impressive seasons at Vanderbilt before leaving for State College. Combined score in those three games: 100-14. Yikes.

For Kentucky football to earn that 10th win by beating Penn State and James Franklin would be the perfect follow-up to Kentucky basketball’s big win on Saturday. And a heck of a way to ring in the New Year.

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