Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 79-70 victory over Northern Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Friday night:
1. The first tournament games is always the hardest
That’s what they say, anyway. And that was the theme the Cats were trying to stick to after being outscored 46-41 in the second half by their neighbors from the north, the team that was the No. 4 seed in the Horizon League before embarking on a roll that carried the Norse to the conference tournament championship.
The Cats got off to a good start, jumping to a 16-7 lead and extending it to 23-12 when Dominique Hawkins buried a three-pointer from the right corner. When NKU scored nine straight points to cut the lead to 23-21, Kentucky took off on a 12-0 spurt and led 38-24 at the break.
In the second half, however, John Calipari’s team got complacent, or lost its focus, or something. NKU shot 24.3 percent the first half. The Norse shot 47.2 percent the second half. NKU was three-of-17 from three-point range in the first half. It was five-of-15 in the second.
When NKU’s LaVone Holland scored from the left wing with two minutes remaining the Norse had chopped the Kentucky lead under double digits to 70-62. Bam Adebayo made a pair of free throws. Isaiah Briscoe scored inside and the lead was back out to 12.
“We got lackadaisical,” said UK guard Malik Monk.
“I think we got complacent,” said teammate Dominique Hawkins. “We lost our focus.”
The final margin ended up as just nine points. Kentucky was one-of-nine from three in the second half. Maybe the late starting time – tip was at 10:07 p.m. – had something to do with Kentucky’s second-half malaise. Or maybe, as Calipari told his team afterward, the first game is always the hardest.
2. There were some positives (Bam Adebayo)
The freshman center enjoyed an impressive NCAA Tournament debut. Adebayo produced his seventh double-double of the season with 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds. He was five-of-nine from the floor and five-of-six from the foul line.
There were some other bright spots, depending on your point of view. Freshman guard De’Aaron Fox led the Cats in scoring with 19 points. He was eight-of-15 from the floor and had three assists. He was not happy with his game-high six turnovers.
“I don’t think I played well,” Fox said. “You can kind of see it by my demeanor. I was happy with the way I shot the ball and my free throws, but when I turn the ball over I just feel like everything I did was bad.”
Briscoe claimed eight rebounds to go with his 17 points. Derek Willis hit a pair of three-pointers and finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
And when NKU got on a roll at the end, Kentucky made the plays it had to make. Monk was just three-of-11 from the floor and missed all six of his three-point attempts, but he did make five of six free throws over the final 41 seconds to seal the victory.
3. Bottom line: Kentucky has to play better Sunday to beat Wichita State
In the first game of the Friday night doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Wichita State pulled out a 64-58 win over Dayton in a tough, hard-nosed physical game.
The Shockers won the game on the glass, outrebounding the Flyers 48-29. Coach Gregg Marshall’s team had 13 offensive rebounds compared to 19 defensive for Dayton. WSU had 19 second-chance points to just eight for Dayton.
Wichita State will be a challenge Sunday and not just from the revenge standpoint. No doubt the Shockers would love nothing more than to bounce 30-5 Kentucky from the tournament the same way UK knocked out then undefeated Wichita State in the second round of the 2014 tournament.
It goes beyond that, however. Though not as athletic as Kentucky, the Shockers play a physical brand of basketball that could give the younger, thinner Cats trouble. UK center Bam Adebayo is a banger, but that’s about as far is goes for Calipari’s roster. Wichita State’s front line, especially 265-pound center Shaquille Morris, is not afraid to put its body on opponents.
Dayton ended up shooting just 31 percent in Friday night’s loss. The Flyers shot just 27.6 percent in the second half. And Wichita State came into the game ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy.
No wonder most felt the 10th-seed Shockers were grossly underseeded. Dayton coach Archie Miller told Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel afterward that his staff considered Wichita State a No. 4 seed.
Kentucky has to play better than it did Friday night, especially in the second half, if it wants to move on to Memphis.
Kentucky vs. Wichita State
When: Sunday, 2:40 p.m. ET (approximate)
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
TV: CBS with Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery and Tracy Wolfson
Radio: UK Network (WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1) with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt