Mark Story

After bombing its way past Seton Hall, can Wofford unleash the fury on Kentucky?

Calipari and the Cats break down Kentucky’s NCAA win over Abilene Christian

Kentucky's John Calipari, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis talked to the media after Thursday night's 79-44 victory over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.
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Kentucky's John Calipari, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis talked to the media after Thursday night's 79-44 victory over Abilene Christian in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.

March Madness is famed for its David vs. Goliath dynamic. That contrast will never get much sharper than Kentucky and Wofford.

UK has 127 all-time NCAA Tournament victories.

Wofford now has one.

Kentucky is a flagship state university with in excess of 22,000 undergraduate students.

Located in Spartansburg, S.C., Wofford is a private school with an enrollment of 1,592 (source: U.S. News Best Colleges profile).

The Wildcats represent the lordly Southeastern Conference.

The Terriers play down the college sports “food chain” in the venerable Southern Conference.

Yet, on Saturday, worlds will collide when NCAA Tournament Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky (28-6) will face off with No. 7 Wofford (30-4) for a berth in the sweet 16.

The Wildcats, playing without injured star PJ Washington, advanced Thursday night with a 79-44 win over No. 15 Abilene Christian in the round of 64.

Wofford then dialed in 13-of-28 three-point shots and used a late outburst to subdue No. 10 seed Seton Hall 84-68.

Cameron Jackson.JPG
Wofford’s Cameron Jackson (33) prepared to hug Terriers Coach Mike Young late in the Terriers’ 84-68 NCAA Tournament victory over Seton Hall. It was the first NCAA tourney victory in Wofford school history. John Raoux AP

Now, standing between Kentucky and a trip to Kansas City for the Midwest Region semifinals, is the team that many have been touting as one of the 2019 NCAA tourney’s most appealing Cinderellas.

“The thought of Wofford coming back on Saturday to face off with one of the great programs in our country, the Kentucky Wildcats, that’s pretty cool stuff,” said Terriers Coach Mike Young.

Wofford big man Cameron Jackson said the Terriers are highly familiar with UK.

“We’ve definitely watched Kentucky. They are on TV all the time,” Jackson said. “Very talented team. They’ve got a lot of guys who can score the ball. They are very athletic. It’s going to be a tough game, but we are welcoming the challenge.”

The win over Seton Hall was Wofford’s 21st straight win. The Terriers have not lost a game since falling 98-87 at Mississippi State on Dec. 19.

That defeat in Starkville came in the fifth game against a power-conference foe Wofford played in November and December, four of which were on the road.

Wofford went 1-4 in those games, beating SEC member South Carolina 81-61 in Columbia, but falling to North Carolina (78-67) and at Oklahoma (75-64), Kansas (72-47) and MSU.

The possible unavailability of Kentucky’s Washington, the Wildcats’ leading scorer (14.8 ppg) and rebounder (7.5 rpg), could be especially important vs. Wofford.

Washington missed Thursday night’s win over Abilene Christian after a hard cast was applied to what UK says is a sprained left foot. UK Coach John Calipari did not sound like he expected to have Washington available Saturday, either.

In games against major-conference competition, the Terriers have struggled to contain high-level, front-court players.

North Carolina’s Luke Maye went for 24 points. Kansas star Dedric Lawson had 20 points and eight boards vs. Wafford. Mississippi State big man Aric Holman, the former Owensboro High School star, went for 19 points and eight rebounds and missed only one shot (6-of-7 field goals, 3-of-4 treys) vs. the Terriers.

At its best, Wofford produces a symphony of offensive basketball. Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Terriers were averaging 83 points a game, shooting 49.3 percent as a team — and 41.6 on three-pointers.

The Terriers came into the Big Dance averaging essentially one assist (15.4 a game) for every two made field goals (averaging 30.2 made shots a game).

Wofford uses a 10-man rotation, with ex-University Heights Academy standout Tray Hollowell (5.1 ppg) one of the top reserves.

Wofford’s stars are 6-4 senior guard Fletcher Magee (20.5 ppg, 42.8-percent three-point shooter); 6-8, 250-pound post player Jackson (14.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 58.1-percent field-goal shooter); and 6-4 junior guard Nathan Hoover (13.3 ppg, 45.7-percent on three pointers).

Magee, an Orlando product, burst into the national consciousness in December 2017, when he scored 27 points to ignite a 79-75 Wofford upset of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Before Seton Hall, Magee had not fared especially well this season against power-conference foes. He was shooting 30.1 percent from the floor (25-of-83) and 23.7 on three-pointers (14-of-59) in Wofford’s five prior games against big-name foes.

But playing in front of family and friends in his native Florida, Magee drained seven of 12 three-pointers en route to 24 points vs. the Pirates. The seven treys allowed Magee (509 career three-pointers) to move past Oakland’s Travis Badger (502) as the all-time NCAA Division I three-point shot maker.

Wofford’s long-range artillery figures to be a challenge for UK on the court.

A large Wofford following in the stands at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena may also challenge the usual superiority of the Big Blue Nation.

“We came here to win,” said Wofford’s Hoover. “We came here to make it as far as we can, so we’re just going to get ready for Saturday.”


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.