Coming off a much-hyped victory over Duke earlier in the week, Kentucky never trailed in defeating Wright State 78-63 on Friday night.
But Coach John Calipari surely left Rupp Arena unhappy. And he declined to use a post-Duke funk as an excuse.
“This is going to be a process,” he said. “You tell me that looked like the No. 2-ranked team. There’s got to be 20 teams better than us, right now.”
Calipari reminded reporters that UK had more turnovers (12) than assists (nine).
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Wright State Coach Billy Donlon found that statistic surprising. “I would be shocked if they had very many more games with a negative assist-to-turnover,” he said.
Kentucky had some spirited play. Two or more UK players tussled with each other for rebounds. The Cats made scoring inside the three-point arc difficult for Wright State (15-for-44 shooting).
There was even a double technical foul (on UK’s Jamal Murray and Wright State’s Joe Thomasson) midway through the second half. That reflected the competitive nature of the play.
Less than a minute later, Tyler Ulis’ hounding led Thomasson to push off near midcourt, which resulted in his fifth foul and exit.
In case anyone needed reminding that Kentucky’s defense can be fearsome, Duke’s Grayson Allen scored 30 points earlier Friday night in a victory over VCU. He had six points against UK after averaging 27 in the two games prior to facing the Cats.
Tyler Ulis, one of the stars of UK’s victory over Duke, scored a career-high 21 points.
Alex Poythress grabbed 10 rebounds. He had previously grabbed more rebounds only four times in his college career, just twice since his freshman season.
Poythress also scored 10 points, which gave him his third career double-double.
Isaiah Briscoe added 15, while Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere chipped in 13 each.
That all sounded good. But Calipari saw the game within the game. The Cats struggled to establish a post presence. Too often, Calipari said, UK players strayed from a call and went on their own.
“I want us to keep climbing,” Calipari said when offered the chance to agree with a reporter’s post-Duke rationale. “We took a big step back. Guys didn’t listen. … In a league game, we lose. You’re not winning in the league.”
More than once, Calipari suggested a portion of the credit should go to Wright State. The Raiders played their signature pack-line defense, collecting in the lane and daring Kentucky to win with three-pointers.
“We needed Kentucky to shoot 20 threes to have a chance,” Donlon said.
UK took only 10, and made two, which meant Wright State never paid a heavy price for sagging its defense in the lane area.
It’s a defensive strategy Calipari expects to see frequently this season. “I expected it up in Chicago,” he said.
Wright State, which played its first game on this date 45 years ago (a triple-overtime loss to Cumberland College on Nov. 20, 1970), fell to 1-3.
Grant Benzinger, the son of former Major League Baseball player Todd Benzinger, led Wright State with a season-high 19 points.
Kentucky never trailed in the first half and built a steadily growing lead that crested at 39-26 in the final seconds.
Poythress, who has frequently been the recipient of Calipari’s urgings, typified UK’s moments of zip. He grabbed seven rebounds in the first half. In his previous three seasons, he’d had more rebounds in games only 14 times.
Poythress gave fans their first biggest-half thrill. Isaiah Briscoe’s harassing defense led to an errant pass that Poythress picked off and took to a rousing two-hand dunk he punctuated by swinging under the backboard while grasping the rim.
The crowd roared as UK took its first double-digit lead, 31-21 with 4:35 left.
Driving layups by Briscoe and Ulis extended UK’s first-half lead to its zeniths: 35-22 and then 39-26.
Wright State made only four of its first 18 shots. Before the game, Donlon said he wanted his players to rely less on three-point shots. Wright State made 22 of 44 in the last two games, but lost twice.
Wright State took only two in the first nine and one-half minutes. But because of UK’s defense, the Raiders made only seven of 26 two-point shots in the first half.
The second half brought more of the same. Kentucky maintained a double-digit margin in the early going. A three-pointer by Ulis extended the lead to 46-31 with 15:39 left.
As his teammates shot informally before the game, Isaac Humphries watched from a seat off the end line near the UK bench.
A gray boot on his left foot suggested Humphries would not play. UK announced that he had injured the foot. He was listed as day to day.
“He’ll be fine,” Calipari said.
Dominique Hawkins missed the game because of a stomach virus, Calipari said.
Boston at Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network)