Kentucky’s season opener was a case of veterans night on Veterans Day.
Veteran players such as Derek Willis, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries led Kentucky to a 87-64 victory in the season’s opening game Friday.
The opponent, Stephen F. Austin, was supposed to have enough experience to test this latest freshman-dependent Kentucky team.
Although the Lumberjacks managed to keep Kentucky’s transition game mostly in check. The Cats had only four fastbreak points in the first half, and finished with 12.
That made for a game that bore no resemblance to the exhibition romps over Clarion and Asbury. The latter saw Kentucky with more than 60 fastbreak points.
This was a good thing, UK Coach John Calipari said. Stephen F. Austin let the Kiddie Cats know the regular season will not be wall-to-wall romper room.
“It’s just two different levels of basketball,” Willis said.
Briscoe saluted Stephen F. Austin.
“They weren’t scared of us,” he said. “They weren’t scared of Kentucky. They wanted to win, and we had to match their intensity.”
No. 2 Kentucky, the highest-ranked opponent Stephen F. Austin had ever played, led comfortably throughout the game.
On Thursday, Briscoe suggested a way Kentucky’s older players could show the way.
“Keep it simple,” he said. “Making simple plays. College is more about being smarter. When you’re tired, it’s time to use your mind.”
Briscoe led Kentucky with 17 points. Willis added 15 (the third-highest point total of his college career). Isaac Humphries added a timely nine points and eight rebounds in relief of the foul-prone Bam Adebayo.
UK’s freshmen had their moments. De’Aaron Fox had 12 points and 12 assists, the latter the most by a UK player in a season-opening game (records kept back to the 1971-72 season). Wenyen Gabriel and Malik Monk chipped in 10 points each.
Twenty-seven fouls and 24 turnovers made for a disjointed first half.
Perhaps such a sloppy half required the steadying influence of veteran players. Willis, Humphries and Briscoe gave Kentucky that steadiness. Freshmen accounted for only 16 of UK’s 48 points in the first half.
Willis scored 10 points barely four minutes into the game. He had reached double-digit points only 11 times in his first three seasons.
“Derek just came out and showed what a senior is supposed to do,” Fox said. “He put up points. He got comfortable and that allowed us to get comfortable.”
The first of Willis’ two and-ones erased Stephen F. Austin’s only lead (3-2). The second increased Willis’ first-half point total to 10 with 15:40 left.
Willis put the and-ones in the context of a player wanted to show an expanded game.
“I feel on the scouting report (it says) ‘The kid is a spot-up shooter,’ yada, yada,” Willis said. “‘Not very physical.’ Stuff like that.
“I just wanted to show them another side of my game.”
Earlier in the week, Stephen F. Austin Coach Kyle Keller spoke of Willis as a difference-maker for Kentucky.
“Better shooter than (Kyle) Wiltjer was,” Keller said. “A lot better. … He’s ready to explode on the scene.”
Humphries contributed seven points and seven rebounds. Kentucky needed his production when freshman Bam Adebayo picked up two fouls in the first 43 seconds and went to the bench.
When asked on Thursday about how UK’s “bigs” figured to impact games this season, Humphries said, “I don’t really have much of a look on that yet. But I feel after this weekend, we’ll know a little more of how it’s going to work.”
The opening 43 seconds validated Calipari’s comment Thursday that Adebayo needed to work on defending without fouling.
That advice could have applied to several players in the first half.
UK was shooting the one-and-one with 17:31 left in the first half. The Cats enjoyed the double bonus for the half’s final 13:20.
In all, Stephen F. Austin had 17 fouls in the first half. UK took advantage by making 10 of 14 free throws.
That compensated for 2-for-10 shooting from three-point range. Senior Mychal Mulder made both treys.
The second half was not radically different. UK veterans shouldered a bulk of the scoring. Adebayo fouled. UK defense and obvious superiority kept Stephen F. Austin at bay.
Keller expected scoring to be difficult for his team against Kentucky.
“It’s going to be hard getting into the paint,” he said earlier in the week. “With their athleticism and length, it’s hard to get three-point shots. I worry about us getting to 50 (points), to be honest.”
Stephen F. Austin got its 50th point with 9:23 left. UK led 71-50.
Canisius at No. 2 Kentucky
6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2)