Instant analysis from No. 19 Kentucky’s 88-61 win over Utah:
How the game was won
Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson (24 points) lit up the December evening with torrid shooting (8-for-9 field goals, 6-for-7 three-point tries) and UK overcame a horrid start (down 10-2) to bury Pac-12 foe Utah.
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1. Keldon Johnson. UK freshman had a “Tayshaun Prince vs. North Carolina” start by draining five straight three-pointers to open the game.
2. Players from Minnesota. Utah’s Both Gach (Austin, Minn.) had a team-high 22 points. UK’s Reid Travis (Minneapolis) had double digits, too, with 16.
3. Kentucky defense. Forced 18 Utah turnovers that became a massive 34-9 UK advantage in points off of turnovers.
4. Ashton Hagans. The UK freshman point guard’s shooting remains a concern (1-for-7 field-goal tries) but he had seven assists and only two turnovers in 22 minutes.
5. Jemarl Baker. In garbage time, the injury-plagued UK redshirt freshman finally got chance to show the outside shooting prowess that was his recruiting reputation. The 6-foot-4 guard buried two deep treys to put a late charge in the Rupp Arena crowd.
Reasons for worry
1. UK schedule. Utah’s team was not as good as its program reputation, which has been a recurring theme for many UK opponents (looking at you, Monmouth) coming into Rupp Arena early this season. Have the Wildcats played a sufficiently challenging schedule to get them ready for a neutral-court meeting with North Carolina and a road game at archrival Louisville?
2. Kentucky depth. In the first game since Quade Green’s transfer, UK used a rotation of eight players when the game was competitive. The Cats entered final four minutes with three of those eight players with two points or fewer.
Eight. On Dec. 18, 1976, Utah upset No. 3 Kentucky 70-68 in the finals of the University of Kentucky invitation tournament, the first defeat ever suffered by UK in Rupp Arena. Since that loss, Kentucky’s payback has been fierce. UK has now beaten the Utes eight straight. Six of those times came in the NCAA Tournament, including the 1998 NCAA finals when Kentucky rallied from 10 down at halftime to win 78-69 over the Utes.
▪ Kentucky recognized at halftime its 1993 Final Four team, which finished 30-4 and fell to Michigan and the Fab Five in the national semifinals in an 81-78 overtime heartbreaker. Introduced to the Rupp crowd were: Junior Braddy, Jeff Brassow, Dale Brown, Rodney Dent, Gimel Martinez, Jared Prickett, Andre Riddick, Todd Svoboda and Henry Thomas. Appearing via video on the Rupp giant video boards were Tony Delk, Travis Ford and Rodrick Rhodes. Absent were the star, Jamal Mashburn, and head coach, Rick Pitino, of the 1992-93 Wildcats, as well as players Chris Harrison, Walter McCarty and Aminu Timberlake.
▪ On a weekend when Kentucky was playing host to a number of important football recruits only days before the early signing period begins, UK recognized its plentiful All-SEC football selections individually during the second TV timeout of the first half. There were huge roars for Benny Snell and Josh Allen. SEC Coach of the Year Mark Stoops also got an enthusiastic cheer. And Kentucky brought the Governor’s Cup to midcourt, too.
▪ Josh Allen was the “Y.”
▪ For the final Wildcats home game before Christmas, the UK Dance team had one of its members dress as “Mrs. Claus” and perform a featured dance solo.
No. 19 Kentucky (8-2) will face No. 12 North Carolina at around 5:15 p.m. in the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center in Chicago. Coach Roy Williams’ Tar Heels (7-2) faced No. 4 Gonzaga at 7 p.m. Saturday night in a rematch of the 2017 NCAA Championship Game won by UNC 71-65 over the Zags.
Entering Saturday’s play, Carolina’s two losses this season were to Texas, 92-89, on a neutral court in Las Vegas and an 84-67 shellacking at Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Going into the Gonzaga game, North Carolina had four players averaging in double figures in Pittsburgh transfer Cameron Johnson (15.7 points); freshman guard Coby White (15.3); senior forward Luke Maye (13.7, team-best 9.4 rebounds); and lavishly-hyped frosh Nassir Little (12).
UK fans remember the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Maye all too well. The forward hit a jumper with 0.3 of a second left to give North Carolina a 75-73 win over the Wildcats in the 2017 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
North Carolina leads the all-time series with Kentucky 24-15. In the John Calipari era, UK is 5-3 vs. UNC.