A wise guy in Rupp Arena on Sunday night could say Kentucky sent UIC to the basketball ICU.
Or maybe he’d say Kentucky enrolled Illinois-Chicago in the school of hard Knox.
With Kevin Knox leading the way, Kentucky doused the Flames 107-73. Actually, the Flames were never lit as UK rolled to a sixth win in seven games to start the season. The 107 points were the fourth-most scored by UK in John Calipari’s nine seasons as coach (and the most since a 115-69 shellacking of Arizona State in the Bahamas on Nov. 28 of last season).
Calipari saw his young Cats growing metaphorical whiskers. The UK coach said his team in progress made “great strides” in thumping Illinois-Chicago.
“By far the best we’ve played …,” said Calipari, who added that he only counted one bad shot (a Knox fadeaway in the first half). “I thought this was the closest we’ve played to a 40-minute basketball game this year. This is the closest. So that’s good to see.”
Knox scored 25 points. That equaled the most points scored by a UK player so far this season (Nick Richards had 25 against Fort Wayne last Wednesday).
Maybe more importantly, Knox showed his versatility as a scorer when points become more precious in future UK games. He scored on pull-up jumpers, floaters in the lane and the obligatory handful of dunks. His highest scoring game came without UK’s most prolific three-point shooter making a shot from beyond the arc.
For the first time, UK repeatedly posted up Knox. Those plays contributed to a 60-34 advantage in paint for Kentucky.
Knox said UK had been working on posting up wings. Of the Flames, he said, “They really couldn’t guard us in the post in the first half.”
Six UK players scored in double figures. Hamidou Diallo had 19 points (and two memorable dunks). PJ Washington added 17, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 14, Quade Green 12 and Richards 11.
UIC, which had the poorest final Ratings Percentage Index (238) of any UK opponent so far, fell to 2-3.
Kentucky took the lead for good 50 seconds into the game and expanded the margin in the first half to as much as 19 points.
Turnovers fed UK’s early breakout. UIC committed seven turnovers inside the first six minutes, and had 12 with more than eight minutes left.
Although UIC was turnover-free the rest of the half, the damage was done. Kentucky got into a rhythm and dominated as seamlessly as the freshman-dependent team had been able to do to this juncture of the season.
Knox led the way offensively in the first half with 15 points. He made UK’s only three-pointer (in five attempts) and did more posting up than in previous games.
Diallo scored 11 points in the first half. He also had the half’s most highlight film-worthy basket. He roared down the lane in transition and seemed to flash his 44.5-inch vertical leap en route to a dunk. This drew ahhhs from the crowd, put UK ahead 30-14 and prompted a UIC timeout with 10:10 left.
How well did the first half go for a Kentucky team that made two-thirds of its shots (20 of 30)? Washington, who had made 11 of 28 free throws in the previous six games, made all four of his foul shots.
No dramatic changes came in the early minutes of the second half as UIC got no closer than 16 points.
Kentucky expanding its lead seemed inevitable. It happened between the first and second TV timeouts. A three-pointer by Green gave UK its first 20-plus point lead (69-48) with 14:36 left. Washington’s put-back while being fouled made it 74-52 at the second TV timeout.
Burying a wobbling opponent, an area cited in earlier games as needing attention, also seemed inevitable. Whether it came or not, a rally by UIC to make it mildly more interesting seemed farfetched.
Calipari had stressed burying teams, Knox said, “by pushing the lead up and up and up. Just pound them in the ground. I think that’s something we did today.”
Harvard at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)