Kentucky built and then frittered away most of a double-digit lead inside the first 11 minutes.
This inspired Coach John Calipari to walk a few steps onto the court and bellow, “Throw it to Bam!!!!”
UK presumably pays Calipari handsomely to dispense such sound coaching advice. Bam Adebayo’s domination propelled Kentucky to a fast start. Not so coincidentally, he did not see the ball much for several minutes and Northern Kentucky rallied.
After Calipari’s high-volume advice, Adebayo only touched the ball twice in the next nine possessions. A foul call nullified the first touch. The second was a bullet pass from Malik Monk that probably was supposed to be a lob.
No, Kentucky’s 79-70 victory over Northern Kentucky to open the NCAA Tournament was not picture perfect. “It was not the prettiest win,” Isaiah Briscoe conceded.
With its many freshmen playing for the first time in survive-and-advance conditions, a seamless performance seemed improbable. But an uneven performance coming after the good vibes at the Southeastern Conference Tournament surely sent a sobering message to the Big Blue Nation.
Briscoe was philosophical.
“It happens,” he said. “We can’t beat everybody by 20 or 30 points. Teams come out. They fight hard. They play hard against us. We’re kids still growing up. It happens.”
Even with a return to the inconsistent, erratic play that marked the regular season, Kentucky advanced to Sunday’s second-round of the South Region. The Cats (30-5) will play Wichita State, which outlasted Dayton 64-58 earlier Friday night.
Adebayo grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds and scored 15 points. De’Aaron Fox led UK with 19 points, while Briscoe added 17.
When asked what Calipari told the players after the game, Adebayo said, “He was just saying we didn’t play our best game. The first one (in the NCAA Tournament) is the hardest.
“We just need to stick together and figure this thing out.”
In his attempt to reassure he Big Blue Nation, Calipari was to the point. “We’ll be fine,” he said.
Northern Kentucky, which went from being picked to finish seventh in the Horizon League to a NCAA Tournament appearance in its first year of eligibility, finished with a 24-11 record.
That Kentucky would be a challenging opponent for the Norse was no surprise.
As Northern Coach John Brannen said of UK on Thursday, “Three top-15 draft picks. They’ve got a Hall of Fame coach. I could go on and on about what keeps you up at night.”
UK took the lead for good inside the first three minutes and cruised to a 38-24 halftime lead.
But the cruise was bumpy. UK forgot to the get the ball to Adebayo and took some ill-advised shots (a 12-foot floater by Wenyen Gabriel was a head-scratcher).
But Kentucky was clearly the better team, as evidenced by NKU’s 9-for-37 shooting in the first half.
“What I said at halftime (was) the one thing I’m worried about is they missed a bunch of threes that they normally make,” Calipari said of Northern’s 3-for-17 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half. “Or the game would have been closer. And then late in the game, they made them all.”
In a reprise of another regular-season bugaboo, Northern shot much better in the second half (47.2 percent) than in the first (24.3 percent).
“We got away from talking (and) being engaged on defense,” Briscoe said, “and it showed.”
A 13-0 run in the latter stages of the first half put Kentucky in charge. A 23-21 lead ballooned to 36-21.
The slow starts that marked Kentucky’s play down the stretch of the regular season did not reappear. With Adebayo a force around the basket, UK took the lead for good at 9-7 on his putback dunk.
Calipari goosed the energy engine after Northern Kentucky reduced the Cats’ lead to 23-21. He called for a half-court trapping, which paid almost immediately dividends.
Northern Kentucky turned over the ball the first time UK trapped. Fox cashed in with a dunk that seemed to ignite Kentucky’s transition game.
Two more fast-break baskets were part of a 13-0 run.
A fast start to the second half expanded Kentucky’s lead to 44-26.
Frequently attacking the forward spot manned by Derek Willis and Gabriel, Northern hung in there.
The Norse got within 70-62 and with more than two minutes remaining and twice within seven points in the final 32 seconds.
But by then, the clock had already struck midnight and it was clear the inconsistencies would not turn Kentucky into a pumpkin.
Kentucky vs. Wichita State
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional round-of-32 game
When: About 2:40 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Records: Kentucky 30-5; Wichita State 31-4