Kentucky fans looking for blessed assurance after Tuesday’s 34-point loss to Duke might have left Rupp Arena unfulfilled Friday night. Threatening to set a record for turnovers in John Calipari’s time as UK coach could do that.
But a victory — any victory — after the loss to the Blue Devils would feel good. And UK delivered by defeating Southern Illinois 71-59.
Two players who had faded from prominence led the way. Nick Richards, who went scoreless in 13 minutes against Duke, grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds. His previous high was 15 against Fort Wayne last season.
UK needed his resurgence with Reid Travis limited to six points and five rebounds because of early foul trouble.
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Quade Green, who didn’t make a shot against Duke, scored 14 points against the Salukis. All but four of those came in the second half.
Another surprise was Immanuel Quickley’s two three-pointers. In previous public performances, beginning with the Blue-White Game and through the loss to Duke, he had made only one of nine shots from behind the arc.
Kentucky, which last lost a home opener in 2008 (111-103 to VMI), improved its record to 1-1. The Cats won despite 19 turnovers. The record in the Calipari era is 24 (against Morehead State in his first game as coach to begin the 2009-10 season).
Surely, the first half did not bolster confidence in the Big Blue Nation. Southern Illinois, in its first game of the season, had two more baskets (12-10). But UK led 31-28 thanks in part to a 14-1 advantage in free throws attempted. Southern Illinois missed its only free throw. Kentucky made 10 from the line.
The halftime lead might have been greater had Kentucky not committed 14 turnovers, which was just one shy of the number the Cats committed against Duke earlier in the week. UK’s assist-to-turnover ratio was almost three-to-one in the wrong direction: five assists, 14 turnovers.
More than once, Calipari let his disappointment show. Twice a UK player passed while his teammate moved a moment earlier from the path on the ball. On the second, when PJ Washington threw a pass from the post toward the perimeter, Keldon Johnson had moved from the wing toward the top of the key.
Calipari bent over dramatically and slapped a hand on the scorer’s table.
Kentucky’s ball-handling was suspect from the start. With Quickley starting in place of Ashton Hagans at point guard, the Cats committed turnovers on four of their first eight trips down the court.
UK’s steadiness wasn’t helped when its designated leader, Travis, went to the bench with two fouls at the 15:23 mark.
Southern Illinois led for more than 13 minutes of the first half. Kentucky, which led for 4:17, took its first lead with 5:18 left. Green hit a three-pointer to put the Cats ahead 22-19.
Mostly, Kentucky kept its three-point guns holstered. UK made only one of five from beyond the arc in the first half.
The early minutes of the second half did not ease any anxiety. UK did not commit a turnover until Quickley charged with 15:50 left.
Meanwhile, Travis scored his first point with a free throw at the 19:24 mark, and didn’t grab a rebound until about 90 seconds later.
The wait for a Kentucky breakout continued unanswered. Back-to-back fast-break scores put Southern Illinois ahead 44-37 with 14:19 left.
That prompted a Kentucky timeout. Whatever Calipari said, it worked. The Cats shot confidently. Threes by Green and Quickley got UK close. EJ Montgomery’s tip-in put the Cats ahead 47-46 with 12:19 left.
Better care of the ball (only three turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the second half) helped Kentucky take a 55-50 lead with 8:54 left. Johnson capped this mini breakout with a fast-break dunk.
His three-point play a minute later gave UK its largest lead to that point: 58-52.
Green’s driving three-point play put UK ahead 61-52 with 5:39 left. His unselfish pass back to a trailing Johnson for a fast-break dunk gave the Cats their first double-digit lead: 67-57 with 2:57 left.
North Dakota at No. 2 Kentucky
9 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network)