Toppin scores career high in Cats win over Cards

Published 5:04 pm Monday, January 2, 2023

Jacob Toppin returned to the starting lineup and made his presence known in Kentucky’s 86-63 win over rival Louisville Saturday.

The senior forward scored a career-high 24 points after he tallied 13 points in the team’s previous four games. Toppin didn’t score in the Wildcats’ 89-75 loss at Missouri Wednesday, but Kentucky coach John Calipari followed his instincts and inserted Toppin back into the lineup.

“I just felt like I needed to do that, with all of the stuff we’ve been doing,” Calipari said. “We’ve done a lot of work, and it’s not been on the court. You had guys feeling the weight of the world (on their shoulders)…It’s not life and death. We got punched in the mouth, and we’re still alive…Now he’s going to keep doing it against better teams.”

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The difference, Toppin said, is that he rediscovered his “happy place” and “showed up.”

“I had a lot of support from my teammates and my coaching staff,” Toppin said. “It feels good to be back to my old self, mentally and physically. … I was messed up mentally (and) I wasn’t even thinking right, even when I was on the court. It was really hard for me… I just had to find my happy place where I play my best, and before the game, I focused mentally on finding that spot. I went into the game and didn’t have any other worries.”

After hitting what he described as “rock bottom,” Toppin kept getting support from Calipari through one-on-one sessions and from the rest of his teammates, including freshman Cason Wallace. He said Calipari was the first to offer support.

“We were (all) trying to lift him up,” Wallace said. “We were keeping him in good spirits. Not many of us really knew how tough it was for him. We knew he was going through something and knew how tough it was on him. Seeing him bounce back today, we’re really happy for him.”

A starter in Kentucky’s first ten games, Toppin came off the bench during the previous two encounters before returning to the lineup against the Cardinals and was a much-needed presence for the Wildcats (9-4) following the disappointing showing against the Tigers.

“That was the Jacob that I know,” said senior Oscar Tshiebwe, who showered Toppin with Bible verses and motivational messages before tipoff.

It was Toppin who provided a spark for the Wildcats from the start and scored six of the Wildcats’ first 14 points. He tallied four points in a 9-0 run as Kentucky raced out to an 18-4 lead in the first seven minutes. Toppin surpassed his previous career high of 20 points on a monstrous two-handed slam on an assist from Tshiebwe in the second half.

Louisville (2-12) closed the gap to eight at 30-22 with six minutes remaining in the opening half, but Toppin scored four of the following six points to push the lead back to double digits. Kentucky led 45-30 at the break.

Toppin came through again for the Wildcats after the hosts missed their first three field goals of the second half. A jumper by Toppin gave the Cats their first basket of the half and extended the lead back to double figures.

The outing by Toppin didn’t surprise Louisville coach Kenny Payne, a former UK assistant for ten seasons.

“He’s a high-level player,” Payne said. “He’s capable of dominating a game (and) we knew that coming in. We knew that he had struggled a little bit coming into this game. It’s a rivalry game, and you know what’s going to happen. He’s going to play his best against us.”

Toppin did just that, but also got plenty of help from his teammates, including Tshiebwe, who recorded his seventh double-double of the year with 24 points and 14 rebounds. Wallace chipped in with 17 points for the Wildcats.

Toppin was named the Most Valuable Player of the game by the Bluegrass Sports Commission to cap his career performance.