A veteran big man is supposed to make a telling difference for Kentucky this coming season. A veteran big man made a difference Wednesday in the first game of UK’s exhibition series here.
That veteran big man was — surprise — Nick Richards. The sophomore center played big as UK beat the Bahamas Select Team 85-61.
Richards played effectively on both ends of the court. His 19 points featured the kind of post-up comfort that eluded him last season.
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Richards also was a defensive presence. This came through in italics late in the second half when Samuel Hunter, a Bahamaian likened to DeAndre Ayton earlier in the week, drove. Richards swatted the shot out of bounds.
The veteran big man expected to make a difference struggled to find his basketball sea legs. Reid Travis, the graduate transfer from Stanford, looked like a player still getting accustomed to new teammates and a new setting.
Kentucky led 42-35 at halftime. The game’s opening five minutes made such a competitive score seem unlikely.
Led by Richards, Kentucky roared to a 13-0 lead.
Richards, who faded down the stretch of last season, was active. He scored 10 points inside the first six minutes.
It might be hard to draw significance from an exhibition game in early August, but how Richards scored seemed to send a message. He candidly said last season that he needed to gain enthusiasm for playing in the low post. Why? Because the NBA did not anchor big men in the post.
Richards dominated the Bahamas Select Team from the post early. His 10 quick points included two post-up moves, plus two free throws produced by a post move. He also hit a soft jumper from the baseline en route to a team-high 15 points in the first half.
Tyler Herro drew several cheers from the UK fans. He seemed an instant favorite, perhaps because of his confident shooting. Each jumper that swished drew a cheer during his 12-point first half.
Travis grabbed two quick defensive rebounds upon entering the game at the first TV timeout. He finished the half with a team-high five rebounds. But he seemed to struggle to find an offensive rhythm. He missed his only two shots and committed three turnovers.
The Bahamas Select Team did not meekly submit. Three times down the stretch of the first half, the UK lead was reduced to two points. With three seconds left, Hunter drew a technical foul for shoving PJ Washington.
A free throw by Washington and two technical free throws by Herro set the halftime score.
Kentucky started five different players in the second half: EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, Herro and Travis.
The Bahamas Select Team got the best of this fivesome, scoring the first seven points. A layup by Jaraun Burrows put UK behind 44-43 with 16: 44 left. That was UK’s first deficit.
Less than a minute later, Herro drove to a basket and Kentucky did not trail again.
UK’s defense — and an opponent’s carelessness — helped restore a double-digit lead. The Bahamas Select Team committed four straight turnovers in one stretch.
Travis continued to struggle to establish a rhythm with his new team. This seemed never more evident than midway through the second half when he struggled to get off a shot from the post. Then when the ensuing rebound scramble got him the ball at the rim, he missed a dunk..