Kentucky accomplished at least two things in Friday’s 73-63 victory over Utah Valley. The Cats got the 2017-18 season off to a successful start. And the Cats confirmed, at least for the time being, the suspicion that they are a much better team in an uptempo game
UK played a half-court game in the first half. Then it got out on the fast break in the second half.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander cut to the heart of the matter in explaining the impact of pace on Kentucky’s play.
“In the first half, we lost by nine,” he said. “And in the second half, we won by 20. That says a lot.”
Indeed, the difference was startling.
Facing a set defense, UK trailed 34-25 at halftime.
With its transition game engaged in the second half, Kentucky outscored Utah Valley 48-29.
The Cats were at a distinct disadvantage in terms of experience. UK started five freshmen. Utah Valley started three fifth-year seniors, a junior and a third-year sophomore.
At least for a half, this difference showed as Utah Valley got back on defense and forced Kentucky to try to display the kind of “winning basketball” that Coach John Calipari said on Thursday would need to be developed over time.
Gilgeous-Alexander cited unfamiliarity as a reason UK’s freshmen will need time to develop better half-court execution.
“In high school, we didn’t have to run the half-court sets, and sit for 30 seconds like we do in college basketball,” he said. “So when we get out on the break, it really lets us show our potential.”
Much to Kentucky’s benefit, the second half bore little resemblance to the first.
Kentucky will play another veteran-laden team on Sunday in Vermont. It wouldn’t surprise UK players if Vermont tries to make it a half-court game.
“I feel everybody is going to try to slow us down,” Hamidou Diallo said, “because everybody knows Kentucky in transition is long and athletic. So the way to beat them is to pack it in. This team tried to pack it in the whole game.”
Utah Valley, which has been picked to finish third or fourth in the Western Athletic Conference, led for most of the first half.
During Friday’s first half, Diallo’s dunk with 8:54 left capped a fast break begun when Utah Valley shot an air ball. That was UK’s only fast-break points of the half.
For a freshman-depended team reliant on what Calipari called “random” play, especially early in the season, no fast breaks meant the Cats played against a set defense much of the half.
Coincidentally or not, Kentucky did not make another basket — only six free throws — in the first half after Diallo’s dunk. In that time, UK’s largest first-half lead (23-18) faded away in a Utah Valley 16-2 run into intermission.
The idea that Kentucky might struggle offensively probably crossed minds early. The Cats missed eight of their first 10 shots.
Quade Green came off the bench at the first TV timeout. His presence seemed to bring a semblance of rhythm to UK’s offense. The Cats got Nick Richards established in the low post early then either forgot about him or looked elsewhere for points.
Meanwhile, the Cats made only seven of 32 shots in the half. Getting outrebounded 25-16 contributed to Kentucky only scoring two second-chance points.
Kentucky got its fast break unleashed early in the second half. Its impact was dramatic and obvious as a high-flying dunk.
“I don’t think anyone can keep up with us,” Richards said of UK’s running game. “When it’s a fast break, most of the time it’s going to be a bucket.”
The second half could hardly have started more poorly for UK. The Cats’ first two shots were blocked. Then Utah Valley cashed in a backdoor cut into a three-point play. Kentucky looked like freshmen. More importantly, UK trailed 37-25.
Then Kevin Knox made a three-pointer from the left side against a set defense.
Maybe that relaxed UK. Or more likely a flurry of Utah Valley turnovers that UK converted into scores smoothed out the rough spots.
Fast-break dunks by Knox and Diallo followed the three-pointer. That meant seven points in 37 seconds propelled UK on an 18-0 run that built a 43-37 lead with 15:32 left.
“Just a boost of energy,” Richards said of the rush. “Just out of nowhere. No one really expected it.”
A fast-break layup by PJ Washington gave Kentucky its largest lead yet, 53-44, with 9:04 left. That layup gave UK 12 fast-break points in the first 11 minutes of the second half.
In all, Kentucky scored 18 points off the fast-break in the second half.
“I think we’re the best team in the country if we play in transition,” Diallo said.
The key will be making shots, Diallo said. Kentucky shot 20.6 percent in the first half and 59.4 percent in the second.
“Once we start making shots and show we’re capable of making shots, the sky’s the limit,” Diallo said. “I think we’re unstoppable.”
Vermont at Kentucky
3:30 p.m. Sunday (ESPN)