Kentucky’s 93-69 victory over Canisius Sunday contained the season’s first moment of self-discovery.
It came early in the first half. With the Cats trailing 9-2, a question arose: What will Kentucky do, and who can be depended upon later this season — perhaps as early as Tuesday against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden — when these questions must be answered?
Against Canisius, which has been picked to finish ninth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in a coaches’ vote, Kentucky went to its leader, Isaiah Briscoe. He delivered the scores that steadied his many fuzzy-faced teammates.
“It was just ‘Zay’ being, like, ‘I got a bunch of freshmen on the floor, I’ve got to take over,’” one of those freshmen, Bam Adebayo, said. “He was being a leader and his instincts kicked in.”
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Briscoe scored on UK’s first two possessions after the timeout and went on to score a career-high 21 points. His previous high was 20 at UCLA last season.
“I just kept telling guys that we’re fine,” Briscoe said of that early timeout huddle. “Teams are going to make their runs. Keep calm.”
Briscoe attributed his two immediate baskets to instinct. “If I feel the guy in front me me can’t stay in front of me, I’m going to go by him,” he said. “That’s what Coach (John Calipari) likes. He likes ballers.”
Calipari was succinct. “He was the man,” the UK coach said of Briscoe.
It was a night for career highs with De’Aaron Fox scoring 21 points and Malik Monk 16. Bam Adebayo’s double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds was a career high times two.
Canisius, which had not played a ranked opponent since losing 89-74 to No. 21 UNLV on Dec. 22, 2012, put up plenty of resistance in the first half.
Kentucky outscored Canisius 17-4 in the final 4:26 of the first half to take a 44-35 lead at intermission.
Until then, signs of Kentucky’s growing pains were on display. Casual passes. Losing a man defensively. Poor perimeter shooting (zero for seven from three-point range). The Cats were guilty of all in the first half.
It didn’t take long for the reality check. Calipari called time with 16:43 left. He couldn’t wait for the first television timeout with the Cats trailing 9-2.
Calipari took out Derek Willis, who had been beaten on a drive and then did not prevent a three-point shot, and put in Wenyen Gabriel.
Offensively, Briscoe steadied Kentucky. He drove decisively to a layup on the first possession after the timeout. Then he hit a pull-up jumper in the lane.
The drives kept coming. Briscoe said the defense needing to stay with Monk opened up the court. “They can’t help off Malik,” he said. “I kept driving his side.”
Kentucky still trailed inside the final three minutes of the first half.
But those Canisius fouls helped UK rally. Eleven of UK’s final 21 points came on free throws. Two free throws by Adebayo put Kentucky ahead 34-33 with 2:32 left.
The Cats scored the final six points to set the 44-35 halftime lead. Briscoe, Monk and Fox, who accounted for 11 of UK’s final 13 points, punctuated the first half. Briscoe drove again to a layup. Monk sprinted to a fast-break layup.
Then on the final possession, Fox threw a lob that Monk dunked.
Briscoe, who also contributed five rebounds and only one turnover in 32 minutes, was “twice as good” as last season, Calipari said.
Calipari also saluted Briscoe as UK’s only ultra-competitive player at this early stage. His teammates must adopt that mentality, Calipari said.
“I’ve had that since I was growing up,” Briscoe said. “I was the youngest of the family. I always played against older guys. Where I grew up (Newark, N.J.), you had to be like that.”
Briscoe added that Adebayo, Monk and Fox compete. Just not as consistently.
“Sometimes they’ll take plays off,” he said.
Kentucky vs. Michigan State
Champions Classic, 7 p.m. Tuesday in New York (ESPN)