College basketball’s so-called “guarantee games” in which the upper crust are assured of victories in glorified workouts are not confined to November and December. Such games can happen in the NCAA Tournament.
That was the impression Kentucky made in its first-round victory over Abilene Christian on Thursday night. Even with leading scorer and rebounder PJ Washington watching the action with a protective boot on his left foot, the Cats won as easily as the 79-44 final score suggested.
It was the second-largest margin of victory for Kentucky in an NCAA Tournament game in John Calipari’s 10 seasons as coach.
Kentucky (28-6) advanced to Saturday’s second round against Wofford.
Abilene Christian, which was playing in its first NCAA Tournament game, finished the season with a 27-7 record.
Kentucky led 39-13 at halftime. That marked the season’s second-largest halftime lead, eclipsed only by the 45-15 avalanche that buried Vanderbilt on Jan. 29.
Incidentally, Abilene Christian came into the NCAA Tournament with a NCAA Evaluation Rating (NET) of 154, which was one spot better than Vandy. And UK matched the 35-point victory it enjoyed at Vanderbilt on Jan. 29.
Keldon Johnson led Kentucky with 25 points. Reid Travis added 18. EJ Montgomery, who started in place of Washington, chipped in three points and 11 rebounds, the latter his second-highest total of the season (he grabbed 13 against South Carolina).
After the curiosity of no playing of the national anthem prior to the announcement of starters, there was no competitive basketball.
Several first-half statistics reflected the one-sided nature of the competition. Abilene Christian, which came into the game ranked 40th nationally in shooting accuracy (47.4 percent), made only five of 26 shots. Kentucky outscored its outmatched opponent 26-6 in the paint.
For the game, Kentucky outrebounded Abilene Christian 44-17. The Cats enjoyed a 40-20 advantage in points from the paint. Abilene Christian’s 32.1-percent shooting was the fifth-worst by a Kentucky opponent this season.
You didn’t need any of Ken Pomeroy’s number crunching to know Kentucky would win in a breeze. The Cats scored the game’s first eight points and led 17-3 with 12:42 left. At that point, Abilene Christian Coach Joe Golding called his second timeout presumably in hopes of slowing the onslaught.
Kentucky scored the half’s final 13 points, held Abilene Christian without a basket in the final 5:48 and did not even bother to heave up a last shot after the opponent missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3.9 seconds left.
Despite Kentucky’s dominance, the half gave the ever-fretful among UK fans cause for concern. UK’s shorthanded contingent of “bigs” got in foul trouble.
Nick Richards, who relieved Montgomery at the 15:39 mark, picked up two fouls in less than two minutes. Richards got a third foul with 3:43 left.
Travis went to the bench with a second foul at 6:21.
These fouls did not threaten Kentucky against Abilene Christian. But they figured to be more problematic as the competition gets better.
Early in the second half, Kentucky’s lead grew to a Vandy-esque 46-19.
The remaining 16 minutes were a test to see if Kentucky would “play to our training,” as Ashton Hagans said on Wednesday, or succumb to any temptation to punctuate the game with style points.
Already playing without Washington, Kentucky got a scare with 1:56 left. Richards got undercut while jumping for an offensive rebound. He stayed down for several seconds as the referees went to the monitor. The result was a flagrant one foul.
Richards got up wincing and holding his left side. He stayed in the game and made one of two free throws.