John Clay

Kentucky basketball recovers from shaky offensive start to get first NCAA Tourney win

Slow start, fast finish.

There are worse ways to open March Madness.

On the late, late show that was the final game of the NCAA Tournament regional on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Arena, it took some time for No. 4 seed Kentucky to get its high-powered offense in gear.

Luckily for the Cats, No. 13 seed Stony Brook never got that accomplished and Kentucky rolled on to an 85-57 victory in the East Region opener setting up a Saturday second-round matchup with No. 5 seed and border rival Indiana.

In their first ever NCAA Tournament trip, the Seawolves brought a bag of bricks along from Long Island. Stony Brook missed nine of its first 10 shots, clanged 14 consecutive shots in a row during one painful stretch and by halftime was just 7-of-37 from the field.

“Obviously not the way we wanted to play today,” said Stony Brook Coach Steve Pikiell. “ Their athleticism was really evident.”

Jameel Warney, Stony Brook’s highly-touted center, the 6-foot-9 “old school” player who poured in 43 points in the Seawolves’ America East tournament title win, made just three of 10 shots in the first half.

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“They were being Kentucky,” said Warney, who did finish with a double-double with 23 points and 15 rebounds.

Well, first half Kentucky wasn’t Kentucky, not vintage Kentucky offense. For the first 20 minutes, at least, this seemed like a good game to get out of the Cats’ system. Blame it on opening-night jitters. Blame it on the late starting time. Out of the gate, UK struggled mightily on offense.

Kentucky shot just 32.4 percent the first half. So good shooting the three down the stretch, UK missed all seven of its three-point attempts before halftime.

“First games are always hard in this tournament, in any tournament play,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari. “We were shaky in the first half.”

“It took us midway through the first half to get through the first-game jittters, and then we started playing basketball,” said senior forward Alex Poythress.

Defense, you’d have to say the Cats were pretty good, however. They doubled down hard on Warney, giving the Stony Brook center little room to operate around the basket.

“To show you how much we respect him, we didn’t play him one-on-one,” said Calipari.

On the night, Kentucky finished with an NCAA Tournament record 15 blocked shots. Freshman center Skal Labissiere had six of those swats, five in the first half.

“I was just trying to be a presence for my teammates,” Labissiere said afterward.

It was a rough first 20 minutes for Jamal Murray, who made just one of his nine first-half shots. But “The Archer” started to hit his mark in the second half. The freshman finished with 19 points after making six of seven shots in the second half. Two of those were three-pointers.

He wasn’t alone. Second half, Kentucky looked like the team that entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, hitting 22 of 29 shots, including four of six from beyond the three-point stripe.

Said Stony Brook’s Carson Puriefoy: “We ran into a great team.”

“They’re so athletic at every position,” Pikiell said.

“To get that first game under your belt and move on is important,” Calipari said.

Now it’s on to Saturday’s matchup with Indiana. Tom Crean’s Hoosiers had no trouble settling in, rolling to a 99-74 victory over Chattanooga in Thursday night’s first game.

The Big 10 champions are terrific offensively. Freshman center Thomas Bryant is a wide-body down low. The Hoosiers have athletic wing players. The point guard matchup between IU’s Yogi Ferrell and UK’s Tyler Ulis might be the best of the entire tournament.

Last time the two teams met was 2012 in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game in Indiana. Kentucky won 102-90. We could be looking at the same sort of point production on Saturday.

“Every game you play in this tournament is a rivalry game,” Calipari said.

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