Davidson, the trendy pick to upset Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament first round Thursday, believed it could excite basketball fans with more than the David-and-Goliath storyline.
“We’re a team that’s entertaining, it’s fun to watch …,” guard Rusty Reigel said of Davidson’s three-point shooting style. “Cheer us on and we’ll show you a good time.”
Hamidou Diallo had a telling response.
The NCAA Tournament’s survive-and-advance ethos, he said, meant “no more fun and giggles.”
As if on cue, a taut struggle ensued. This was no place for fun as UK’s streak of games making three-point shots ended at 1,047. UK missed all six of its three-point shots, which ushered in UNLV as the owner of the longest active streak: 1,040 games.
Fun aside, Kentucky won 78-73 to advance to a second-round game against the winner of the Arizona-Buffalo game. It wasn’t easy, or at least as easy as it looked for a half.
In the first half, the Cats showed they were up to the challenge of dealing with Davidson’s patient attack that relied on discipline, perseverance and execution.
Never mind the mental strain involved in playing a fourth game in seven days. UK also had to make do without the usual encouragement generated by a partisan crowd. Apparently the Big Blue Nation is not boundless because too few UK fans were in Taco Bell Arena to raise much of a fuss.
But a 34-24 halftime lead disappeared in a second half that called for Kentucky to display how Hemingway defined courage: grace under pressure. UK passed that test, too.
With the score tied at 54-54 heading into the final seven-plus minutes, Kentucky either got points or free throws in 10 of its next 12 trips downcourt.
UK’s main men, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, led the way. But accounted for all but two of the fruitful possessions. Knox finished with a game-high 25 points. Gilgeous-Alexander added 19.
“Myself and Kevin, we’ve both matured a lot …,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We both know our roles and we’re both willing to take them on.”
Knox, who scored nine of his points in the final 6:18, cited something more than helping his team for his prominence down the stretch.
“It’s March Madness,” he said. “I can’t really play bad no more. I’ve got to do whatever it takes.”
At least for a half, Kentucky’s defense played a big part in the game. Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady had accounted for 68.7 percent of Davidson’s offense this season. They had made 205 of Davidson’s 342 three-pointers.
In the first half, the three combined to make five of 26 shots, including one of 11 from three-point range.
Gudmundsson, a native of Iceland, led Davidson with 21 points. Grady scored 16 and Aldridge 12. But the trio made only 14 of 45 shots (eight of 25 from three-point distance).
With Gudmundsson leading the way, the trio combined to make nine of 19 shots in the second half (seven of 14 from beyond the arc).
No doubt this contributed to UK Coach John Calipari’s mixed review of his team’s defense.
“First half, really good,” he said. “Second half, shaky.”
It took a few minutes for Kentucky’s defense to take control. Davidson made two of its first three three-point shots. The first seemed like a possible omen. Davidson ran the shot clock inside the final five seconds before KiShawn Pritchett hit a three-pointer.
But Davidson made only one of 12 threes the rest of the half.
Kentucky controlled the inside game in the first half, outscoring Davidson 26-10 in the paint.
Washington led the way, scoring all 11 of his points in the first half. That assured him of a ninth double-digit scoring total in the last 10 games.
The second half made the first half seem irrelevant.
Davidson made its first five shots to close within 41-38. It matched its three three-pointers of the first half inside the first four minutes of the second.
Suddenly, it was a competitive game again.
Davidson’s shooting cooled. After all, not every shot would go in. But a floater by Grady brought Davidson within 50-49 and prompted a Kentucky timeout with 9:55 left.
A three-pointer by Grady tied it at 52-52 with 9:03 left. That marked the first time Kentucky had not led since 9:43 remained in the first half.
That set up the test of nerves down the stretch. Kentucky knew to call upon Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander.
“You shouldn’t be surprised at all,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “Those are our go-to guys.”
Obvious though it may be, Calipari makes the decision to go to Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander.
“We don’t really call the plays on our own,” Knox said. “So (Calipari) just calls the plays, and we make sure we make them the right plays.”