Kentucky Coach John Calipari likes to say a team without a post presence is a fraud. By that standard, his team was truth and sincerity on Wednesday night.
With Nick Richards providing a double-double dose of low-post reality, Kentucky beat Fort Wayne 86-67.
If President Trump was in Rupp Arena, he might have said Kentucky beat Fort Wayne bigly. UK enjoyed a 44-21 rebounding advantage and outscored the Mastodons 44-22 in the paint.
Fort Wayne countered with three-point shooting and made enough treys to stay close for a half.
But ultimately, UK’s size — led by the 6-foot-11 Richards — was decisive. Richards, who acknowledges being a reluctant low-post force, posted his first double-double: 25 points and 15 rebounds.
When asked how Richards impacted the game, Fort Wayne Coach Jon Coffman said, “He was the game.”
Richards and UK Coach John Calipari said sports psychologist Bob Rotella and associate coach Kenny Payne deserved assists.
In a 30-plus-minute conversation before Kentucky played Troy on Monday, Rotella told Richards that he (the UK freshman) looked timid.
“He told me to be a little more confident (and) have a little more swag,” Richards said. “He just told me don’t worry about the score and don’t worry about how your stats are looking. Just go out and have fun.”
Rotella also offered advice about the time between tip-off and the players’ arrival at Rupp Arena two and a half hours earlier.
“Don’t think about basketball,” Richards said Rotella told him. “Find something else to keep your mind off basketball.”
Richards said he watched amusing videos.
Payne, the resident physician for UK “bigs,” has been helping Richards develop a hook shot.
“That’s basically my go-to move now,” Richards said.
Kentucky (5-1) pulled away early in the second half and led by 30 points with less than eight minutes left.
As with the less-than-satisfying victory over Troy two nights earlier, Kentucky failed to finish off a weakened opponent. Surely, suspicions about an early tryptophan hangover crossed minds as Fort Wayne scored 11 straight points to close within 79-60.
Fort Wayne, which beat Indiana last season, fell to 3-2. Athlon and Street & Smith picked Fort Wayne to finish fifth in the Horizon League. The league coaches picked Fort Wayne to finish third.
John Konchar, a two-time all-league player, led Fort Wayne with 19 points.
Fort Wayne came into the game hoping to ride three-point shooting to victory. The Mastodons averaged the fourth-most three-point baskets in the nation last season (10.7 per game). They were even more prolific this season, averaging 29.3 three-point shots and 11.3 three-point baskets.
Hamidou Diallo swished a three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half, then celebrated with a skip and strut toward the UK bench.
The shot gave Kentucky a 45-37 halftime lead. That was UK’s largest first-half lead, which might have been a reason to mute the celebrating.
Given UK’s 70.4-percent shooting (19-for-27), a larger lead at intermission seemed attainable, if not inevitable.
But turnovers, a recurring problem for the Cats this early season, prevented a first-half knockout. UK committed 11 turnovers in the half.
Fort Wayne lived up to its pregame billing as a team intent on proving correct former UK coach Rick Pitino’s contention that the three-point shot was basketball’s great equalizer.
The Mastodons made five of their first eight shots from beyond the arc. That kept Fort Wayne close. When Konchar hit a three with 11:23 left, Kentucky found itself down 24-23.
The deficit grew to 27-23. But Kentucky’s switch to a zone defense keyed a rush down the stretch. Fort Wayne did not score in the final 3:45. Kentucky finished the half with a 9-0 run capped by Diallo’s three-pointer.
Even with Fort Wayne scoring l1 straight points to make the second half mildly interesting, Kentucky enjoyed its most lopsided victory margin of the season. And Calipari seemed closer to satisfied than in earlier games.
“I am losing my mind thinking that we should be further along than we are,” Calipari said. “But I’m proud of them. I’m happy.”