The feel-good that is synonymous with Kentucky’s Blue-White Game was present in Rupp Arena on Friday night.
Immanuel Quickley breathed life into Kentucky Coach John Calipari’s comments him about being reborn as a sophomore. Quickley played with newfound purpose and effectiveness. He finished with a game-high 25 points.
Nate Sestina, the graduate transfer from Bucknell, lived up to the billing as a “stretch-four” who could make three-point shots. En route to 22 points, he made four of eight from beyond the arc (the other UK players combined for eight of 33).
Nick Richards, whose struggles in his first two UK seasons endeared him to fans, posted a double-double: 20 points and 11 rebounds. Maybe more tellingly, he committed only two fouls in the first 32-plus minutes.
EJ Montgomery drew oohs with a one-hand rebound dunk. Exceptions can be made to Calipari’s insistence that rebounds be grabbed with two hands.
How well these performances will translate into the regular season remains to be seen. There can be doubt given past Blue-White superlatives: Isaiah Briscoe’s 39 points in 2016, Skal Labissiere’s 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 2015 and Jarrod Polson’s dunk during one of these games in his four UK seasons.
Although the Blue-White Game provided a first extended look at another Kentucky team featuring many new faces, it did not draw a big crowd. The many empty spaces in the upper arena suggested that Lexington Center Corp. would have had room — at least on this night — to replace bleachers with couches rather than chairback seats.
Calipari indirectly addressed the relatively small number of people in Rupp Arena by grabbing a microphone and telling the fans, “There are many teams in the country” that would want “this many fans” for a scrimmage.
Of course, during his state-of-the-program address at Big Blue Madness seven days earlier, Calipari emphasized how Kentucky should not be lumped in with other programs. On that occasion, he likened UK to Carnegie Hall with a “limitless” potential.
The first half suggested that Kentucky will need to work on its perimeter shooting. Other than Sestina, the Cats struggled to make three-point shots.
Sestina made three of seven shots from the new three-point distance of 22 feet and one and three-quarter inches (or about 17 inches farther from the basket). The other UK players made only four of 18 three-point shots.
Even with the struggles from three-point range, Kentucky had no problem scoring. The familiar action to the basket which has been the signature UK approach in Calipari’s time as coach was in evidence. Forty of the game’s first 63 points were scored from the paint. By halftime, the totals were 52 of 85 points. By game’s end, the Cats had scored 98 of the game’s 161 points from the paint.
The White team won 81-80.
Richards, who struggled at times in his first two college seasons, led all players with seven rebounds in the first half. Maybe more importantly, he committed only one foul while playing the entire 20 minutes. His only foul came with 7:43 left in the half and occurred in transition more than 25 feet from the basket.
Sestina and Tyrese Maxey led all first-half scorers with 13 points each.
Quickley looked noticeably more purposeful in the first half. The result was nine points, four rebounds and three assists.
Kentucky got a scare in the first half. Ashton Hagans, who was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, went down. As he laid on the floor, Rupp Arena grew quiet. When he arose after about 30 seconds, the relief in the air was palpable.
A couple of hours before Friday night’s scrimmage, UK announced that Ben Jordan had joined the team for this season.
Jordan — a 6-foot-9, 250-pound post player from Olive Hill — is also a member of the Kentucky baseball team and was a highly touted right-handed pitching recruit at West Carter High School.
He was a redshirt in 2018 and made his Wildcats debut on the baseball field this past season. He’ll be listed as a redshirt sophomore on the basketball team.
Jordan averaged 14.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game during his senior season at West Carter and graduated as the school’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots. He ranks in the top 30 in state history in both of those categories.
Georgetown College at Kentucky
What: Preseason exhibition
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27
Where: Rupp Arena
TV: SEC Network