Its second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday granted Kentucky’s preeminent wish: That two-point shots determine both teams’ fate.
UK beat Wofford 62-56 in a game that largely validated Coach John Calipari’s basketball philosophy of not living and dying with three-point shooting.
Wofford, which ranked in the top 10 nationally in three-pointers per game and shooting accuracy from beyond the arc, died. The Southern Conference champions made only eight of 27 shots from that distance.
Guard Fletcher Magee, who set a Division I career record for threes on Thursday when he made seven against Seton Hall, never found his shooting touch. Hounded primarily by Tyler Herro, Magee failed to make a three-point shot for just the second time this season. He made only four of 17 shots, none of 12 attempts from three-point range, and scored eight points.
To reinforce the point, when Kentucky led 58-56 with less than 20 seconds left and needed a clincher, the ball went to Reid Travis in the low post. Wofford fouled rather than concede the basket. Travis made two free throws to ensure UK would advance to next week’s Midwest Region in Kansas City, Mo.
“There was not much thinking,” Travis said in explaining the oh-so-familiar UK strategy of getting the ball into the paint. “I just know I’ve got to drop step and quickly get to my right hand.”
When asked if UK’s next-to-last possession and the entire game served to endorse Calipari’s approach to basketball, Travis said, “He’s right on with that. We’re obviously going to take (three-point) shots when we have it.
“But you can just watch our bench. Guys are screaming. Penetrate! Penetrate! The whole game because we feel we have the athletes. We’ve got guys who are strong enough to get in the paint and make plays. That’s ultimately how we’re going to win games.”
Wofford, its final record 30-5, competed as you’d expect a team to do with a better NCAA Evaluation Tool rating (No. 13) than every Southeastern Conference team except UK (No. 6) and Tennessee (No. 5).
Kentucky led for only 23 seconds of the first half. But that included the last 1.2 seconds, which meant a 28-26 lead at halftime.
That guy again, Travis, made two free throws with just over a second left to give UK’s its lead. That capped a 10-2 UK run in the final 2:48.
Wofford might not have felt discouraged being down two points. Magee made only one of six shots, none of four from three-point range. His only basket came with 27.5 seconds left. UK protested, saying he double-dribbled to get off his only made shot.
Afterward, Magee was crestfallen while politely explaining his frustrating day.
“The worst feeling,” he called it. “I just feel I let everyone down. … I’ve got to own up to it. … If I had played a just little bit below average, we still would have beat Kentucky. It just took a horrible performance by me.”
Magee, who finished his career with 509 three-point baskets, credited Kentucky for forcing Wofford to look for uncontested shots within two-point range. But Magee had gained a reputation for taking and making contested three-point shots.
“I’ve gotten the shots I got tonight against every team in the (Southern Conference),” he said. “Like every other team I played. They were no harder, honestly. I just didn’t shoot it well.”
Herro, who did not take bows, had a similar take on Magee’s struggles.
“He can hit every shot on the court,” Herro said. “We just caught him on an off day.”
Wofford scored the game’s first five points and did not trail until Ashton Hagans hit a floater in the lane with 49.7 seconds left in the first half. That put Kentucky ahead 26-24.
Kentucky faced adversity early in the second half. EJ Montgomery and Keldon Johnson picked up their third fouls inside the first three minutes.
Kentucky responded to the challenge. The Cats reeled off eight straight points to take their largest lead, 45-37. That prompted a Wofford timeout with 12:02 left.
During this span, Magee missed a wide open three-pointer from the right side. Wofford fans sighed audibly as Magee missed his sixth straight three-point shot. “I thought that one was perfect coming off,” he said.
As Wofford and Magee kept missing, Kentucky held on. Barely. A tip-in reduced UK’s lead to 58-56 with 38 seconds left.
After Travis’ late free throws, Magee missed a three-pointer to seal Wofford’s fate and point Kentucky to Kansas City.
Kentucky vs. Ohio State-Houston winner
What: NCAA Sweet 16
When: Friday, March 29 (Time and TV TBA)
Where: Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.