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 might 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.
Kentucky came into the game wanting to prove the loss to Duke was an anomaly.
“We have to prove to everybody, more importantly to ourselves,” said Immanuel Quickley, who joined fellow freshman Keldon Johnson as UK’s leading scorers with 15 points each. The Cats wanted to prove to themselves that “we have a lot of trust in each other,” Quickley said, “and I think that’s going to be part of the season. Building trust with each other.”
Two players who had faded from prominence against Duke led the way against Southern Illinois. Nick Richards, who went scoreless in 13 minutes against the Blue Devils, grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds against the Salukis. His previous high was 15 against Fort Wayne last season.
Richards acknowledged that UK needed his resurgence with Reid Travis hobbled by early foul trouble and limited to six points, five rebounds and 14 minutes.
“Nothing felt different at all,” Richards said of the contrast in his first two performances. “Just playing my game. Guys were just fighting better. Just trying to play harder as a team.”
Quade Green, who didn’t make a shot against Duke, scored 14 points. All but four of his points came in the second half.
Another surprise was Quickley’s two three-pointers, both of which came early in the second half when Southern Illinois threatened to build a double-digit lead. SIU Coach Barry Hinson said those three-pointers changed the game.
In previous public performances, beginning with the Blue-White Game and through the loss to Duke, Quickley had made only one of nine shots from behind the arc.
“Just staying confident,” Quickley said of his three-pointers. “I think it was only a matter of time till I was starting to make shots. I’ve been in the gym before class every morning. I knew eventually I was going to start making shots.”
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).
“That’s just another part of not coming out aggressive,” Richards said. “It led to turnovers. They got points off those turnovers. But you could see in the second half we stepped it up.”
Surely, the first half did not bolster confidence in the Big Blue Nation. UK led 31-28 at halftime thanks in part to a 14-1 advantage in free throws attempted. Southern Illinois missed its only one. 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, John 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.
The UK coach 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-court.
UK’s steadiness wasn’t helped when designated leader, Reid 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. Quade 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. That enabled the Cats to equal the 15 turnovers committed against Duke.
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.
Richards attributed the difference in UK’s play against Duke and Southern Illinois to aggression.
“They were the aggressor,” he said of the Blue Devils. “Our coaches always tell us the aggressor always wins.”
UK was the aggressor against Southern Illinois as evidenced by a 48-19 rebounding advantage.
“We made strides,” Calipari said.