At times during Kentucky’s up-and-down season, there were questions raised about whether UK had what it took to survive NCAA Tournament grindfests.
The Cats, after all, start five freshmen and have no players on their roster who were playing big roles when Kentucky charged to the NCAA tourney round of eight last season.
On Thursday night, with Kentucky’s season pushed to the brink by NCAA underdog Davidson, Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Co. delivered a definitive answer.
With Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander scoring 22 of UK’s final 24 points, the South Region No. 5 seed Wildcats broke away from a 54-54 tie to pull out a 78-73 victory over No. 12 Davidson in the Taco Bell Arena on the campus of Boise State University.
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UK will face either No. 4 Arizona or No. 13 Buffalo on Saturday in the round of 32.
“It was a good win for this young team. First time they’ve been in the NCAA Tournament,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “What they should have learned is, that if we play like we did in the second half, they will get beat.”
The Wildcats extended their season on the night that UK’s best-in-the-nation streak of consecutive games with a made three-pointer ended at 1,047.
UK was 0-of-6 on treys — Knox missed all three he took, and Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green and Wenyen Gabriel missed one each.
The last time a Kentucky team failed to make a three-pointer in a game was Nov. 26, 1988. In a 63-60 loss to Seton Hall in the Great Alaska Shootout, Eddie Sutton’s Cats went 0-2 on treys — Chris Mills missed one and John Pelphrey missed one.
Had it not been for Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander, UK’s 2017-18 season might well have died with its three-point streak.
At halftime, it did not seem like Kentucky’s season could be in peril. UK controlled the first half with its defensive length and athleticism.
Davidson — the nation’s 10th-most-prolific three-point shooting team (making 10.7 a game) entering the game — hit two of its first five treys.
The North Carolina version of Wildcats then went 1-of-10 the rest of the half.
When Davidson tried to work the ball inside, Kentucky pounced.
Bouncy UK guard Diallo blocked three Davidson shots himself in half one, twice making spectacular plays to deny Jon Axel Gudmundsson.
With Kentucky making 15 of 28 shots before intermission, UK took a 34-24 lead to the locker room.
The feel of the second half changed immediately, however. The reason was Gudmundsson, a 6-4, 190-pound sophomore from Grindavik, Iceland, who took over the early part of the second half.
Gudmundsson (21 second-half points) hit three straight three-pointers to help Davidson make its first five shots of the second half. That stretch completely changed the “feel” of the game.
Kentucky soon found itself fighting for its tournament life.
When Davidson’s Rusty Reigel scored on a layup with 7:41 left, the game was tied at 54. Filled with neutral (and Arizona) fans, the Taco Bell Arena crowd roared in support of the underdogs.
Just when it looked like Stephen Curry might get bragging rights over the battalion of ex-UK players in the NBA, Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander saved the Cats’ bacon.
SGA — who missed seven of his first eight shots — cashed two free throws to put UK back ahead 56-54.
Knox then hit the money baskets, cashing an 8-foot jumper along the baseline that pushed the Cats ahead 59-56.
After Knox sank two free throws with 2:50 left, the Kentucky lead was 63-59. He then came back with a 15-footer from the baseline to make it 65-59 Cats.
From that point, Gilgeous-Alexander hit seven of eight foul shots and had a dunk, while Knox made four of four free throws to help UK survive.
Counting a clutch Quade Green jumper that pushed Kentucky ahead 61-56, freshmen scored UK’s final 24 points after the 54-54 tie.
Knox led Kentucky with 25 points. Gilgeous-Alexander added 19.
“Kevin made some shots,” Calipari said. “Shai did a better job directing the offense.”
And that was just enough to extend the UK season.
If you were wondering, the four teams — North Carolina, Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon — that went to last season’s Final Four won their first games NCAA tourney games by 39, 22, 16 and 20 points, respectively.
The last five teams to win the NCAA Tournament won their opening games by an average of 27.4 points.
That was not the kind of performance UK delivered Thursday night.
But thanks to Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander, the Cats survived a night and a team that could have ended their season.