LOUISVILLE — Kentucky's first NCAA step was an uneven one.
That shouldn't be cause for concern because (a) the unbeaten and overall No. 1 seed still put away Hampton without too much trouble, winning its Midwest Regional opener 79-56 at the Yum Center, and (b) there were other factors involved.
If this started with a crawl, well of course it did. It took all day and almost all of the night to get it started. By the time Cincinnati finally beat Purdue in overtime in the night's first game — with Kentucky waiting and waiting in and outside its locker room — John Calipari's club got to tip it up for the start of their quest to complete a 40-0 season, it was 10:15 p.m.
That's a long time to wait to play a basketball game.
"I didn't like how we started the game. I didn't quite like how we finished the game," said Calipari afterward. "But it is 1 a.m., and there was an overtime game where the guys were hanging out in the locker room waiting for it to start. I'm going to chalk it up to that and move on."
Kentucky basketball no longer holds a Midnight Madness — it's Big Blue Madness — so this was the closest thing.
Kentucky started off sluggish, to say the least. The Cats missed seven of their first nine shots. If you were one of those who made the ridiculous bet that UK would never trail in the NCAA Tournament, you lost. Hampton led 4-3 less than three minutes into the game.
The score was tied 9-9 at the 14:21 mark of the first half. With 8:27 left in the half, Kentucky's lead was just 18-14. Hampton, which needed a win over Steve Masiello and Manhattan on Tuesday night in Dayton, was hanging in.
"No excuse," said Andrew Harrison, the sophomore point guard. "That's on me. I started sluggish, and that won't happen again."
In the final eight minutes of the half, however, the Cats cut loose. They scored 14 straight points for a 32-14 lead. It was 41-22 Kentucky at the break.
The Cats started the second half with a 13-2 run to push the lead to 30 points at 54-24.
After that, however, UK seemed to step off the gas a little. And give credit to Hampton. The Pirates were outscored just 38-34 in the second half.
"I thought our kids competed well, especially in the second half," said Hampton Coach Edward Joyner. "No one's happy with a loss, but I thought we competed."
And, as Calipari said afterward, "When you get up 35 on somebody, it's hard."
As for what Kentucky did right, Joyner mentioned the way the Cats contested shots. "Jesus, they're long," he said.
UK blocked just five shots, but altered countless others. Hampton shot just 27.6 percent in the first half, 28.8 percent for the game. Quinton Chievous, the transfer from Tennessee, made seven of 14 shots. The rest of the Pirates were 10-of-45.
"I thought Quinton played a helluva game," Joyner said.
Karl-Anthony Towns had that type of game for Kentucky. The freshman scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Willie Cauley-Stein also had 11 rebounds.
But some of UK's better shooters didn't shoot the ball particularly well. Aaron Harrison missed all five of his shots in the first half and didn't have an attempt in the second. Cauley-Stein made just one of his five shots. Devin Booker missed five of his six shots.
The Cats were credited with 15 assists but also had 13 turnovers. They were outscored 28-16 over the game's final 12 minutes.
First-game jitters? Possibly. This was a new experience for Towns, Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis. The rest are holdovers, but even for those with tournament experience, you need a game to fully get into the groove.
"You can't start games like this," Calipari said. "You can't do things on your terms in this tournament. You'll have a 12-point lead and then you turn around it's a two-point lead and you're like, what happened? You've got to follow the script. But I think these guys will be fine."
After all, it's not how you start, it's how you finish.