A 70-62 victory over Troy Monday might have marked a significant step in Kentucky’s season-long process of transforming individual stars into an effective unit.
UK beat down Troy by all but abandoning the three-point shot and going to the basket for points.
Troy, which had never beaten a ranked opponent, never led and seemed over-matched in the first half.
But Kentucky could not deliver the knockout punch. Troy rallied in the second half, narrowing a 21-point UK lead to single digits with more than three minutes left.
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“We should have beat Troy by 30 points,” big man Nick Richards said. “Instead, we won by eight. So it could be a good learning point for us.”
Like most, if not all UK opponents this season, Troy had the advantage in experience. Wesley Person, one of two senior starters, was making his 101st career start. Jordon Varnado, one of three junior starters, was making his 72nd start. Overall, Troy’s starters had a collective 241 career starts going into the game.
UK’s roster had a collective 43 starts going into the game.
Kentucky, 4-1, outrebounded Troy 53-30. Further making the point about using the size advantage, only nine of UK’s 59 shots were from three-point range.
If the game plan was to use its height advantage, Kentucky followed it like a well-tested team. But Hamidou Diallo said UK had no such plan. “Different reads” led to fewer three-point shots, he said. “It’s all about playing the game and having a good feel for the game, and being confident.”
Troy, which had a reliance on three-pointers with an average of 27.7 taken per game, made only four of 27 shots from beyond the arc and saw its record fall to 2-3. “We knew we had to make some threes to have a chance to win the game,” Coach Phil Cunningham said.
The first half could be summed up as good news-bad news regarding three-point shooting. Both teams made only one three-point shot. For Kentucky, this was good news because it suggested an intent to exploit its advantages in size and athleticism. For Troy, this was bad news. The Trojans’ only chance to compete seemed to be with abundant three-pointers.
Only three of UK’s first 35 shots were from beyond the arc. In case anyone was nervous about the Cats extending their record streak of making a three-pointer, Wenyen Gabriel eased any concern by making one with 23.7 seconds left. That made for the 1,018th straight game Kentucky made a three-pointer.
Kentucky didn’t take nor need three-pointers. From the start, the Cats seemed intent on working around the basket. Troy, which started no one taller than 6-foot-8 and only one player taller than 6-6, got smothered.
Kentucky never trailed on the backboards nor scoreboards. UK outrebounded Troy 32-17 in taking a 41-25 halftime lead.
If anything, UK was a bit too eager to rebound. Richards played only four minutes because he picked up two quick fouls trying to offensive rebound. Late in the half, Diallo also was called for a foul on an offensive rebound situation.
Troy helped UK take charge by making only one of 14 three-point shots in the first half. Troy came into the game averaging 9.5 three-point baskets.
The Trojans’ two leading scorers — Jordon Varnado and Wesley Person — combined to make five of 13 shots in the first half. With a combined 13 first-half points, they were going to have to step on it to reach their two-man average of 36.5 points. They came close with Person scoring 17 and Varnardo 15.
Troy was coming off a 60-point second half against Brewton-Parker last Thursday. Troy averaged 47.7 points in second halves so far this season.
UK Coach John Calipari seemed ready to take quick action should Troy gain the initiative.
When Quade Green failed to get back to prevent a fast-break score on Troy’s first possession of the second half, UK’s other point guard (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) got off the bench and went to the scorer’s table.
Gilgeous-Alexander went back to the bench when Green hit a three-pointer.
This two-fold change of mind came inside the first 42 seconds of the second half.
Seamless domination probably is beyond Kentucky in the first month of the season. The Cats led by as much as 21 points as late as eight minutes remaining.
But Troy did not quietly submit.
The combination of Kentucky turnovers (12 of UK’s 16 turnovers came in the second half) and a couple of Troy three-pointers helped reduce the lead to 68-59. That prompted a UK timeout with 2:57 left.
Kentucky went — where else? — inside. Kevin Knox, who is assuming the role of go-to guy, converted a shot in the lane to lighten the mood.
Fort Wayne at Kentucky
8 p.m. Wednesday (SEC)