Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 78-73 win over Davidson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament:
1. Especially in the NCAA Tournament, they are all 40-minute games.
For the first 20 minutes Thursday night at Taco Bell Arena, John Calipari’s Cats looked much like they did last weekend in St. Louis on the way to winning the SEC Tournament. They played lockdown defense. They didn’t make silly mistakes. They built comfortable leads.
After holding Georgia to 28.3 percent shooting, Alabama to 37.9 and Tennessee to 37.1, Kentucky held Davidson’s sharpshooters to just 29.4 percent from the floor, including just three-of-15 from three-point range in taking a 34-24 lead at intermission.
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In the NCAA Tournament, however, every team is good, every team is capable of catching fire. And so did the opposing Wildcats in the second half. John Axel Gudmundsson, a sophomore guard from Iceland, really caught fire, making six three-pointers to help bring Bob McKillop’s club roaring back.
Not that this was totally unexpected. Davidson came into the game shooting a splendid 39.1 percent from three-point range, where they averaged 10 made three-pointers per game. Even after failing to get their long-range shots to go in the first half, you knew Davidson would not stop shooting.
Four minutes into the second half, the Atlantic 10 Tournament champs had cut Kentucky’s lead to 41-38. With 9:03 left, on Gudmundsson’s fifth triple of the second half, Davidson had tied things up at 52. And, with 7:39 to go, the game was tied again at 54.
From there, however, Kentucky’s young freshmen made the plays they had to make to win the game. Kevin Knox worked his way open on the baseline, both off screens and weaves, to hit runners and floaters. He finished with 25 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made nine of 11 free throws to end up with 19 and UK survived and advanced.
Actually, this was a good thing. Lesson learned. After taking the double-digit lead into the locker room, the Cats came out the second half a bit complacent. They didn’t have the same energy and they nearly got burned.
“This was good for us,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We know we have to play a 40-minute game to win. We know teams aren’t going to go away. We have things to work on.”
2. Kevin Knox shows/knows his importance to his team.
I admit that I have been among those who thought Knox had a good, but not great, freshman season at Kentucky. Yes, UK’s highest-rated recruit led the team in scoring, but he was not the team’s best player. That honor fell to Gilgeous-Alexander, who proved it again by earning Most Valuable Player honors in the SEC Tournament.
Yet here in the Big Dance, Knox may be Kentucky’s most important player. Some have written and said that the Cats will only go so far in the NCAA Tournament as Knox takes them, and that opinion isn’t off base. It may not play out that way, but Thursday it sure appeared an accurate assessment.
Part of the knock on Knox has been his lack of aggressiveness. He too often floats on the perimeter. He doesn’t mix it up underneath. He doesn’t drive to the basket. He doesn’t like contact. He defers instead of taking over a game.
That wasn’t the case Thursday night. The Tampa native scored 13 of his 25 points after Davidson had tied the score at 54-54 with 7:39 left.
His basket from the right baseline put the Cats up 59-56 with 5:13 left. He hit another jumper from the right baseline with 2:01 left to make it 65-59. He was a perfect four-of-four from the foul line in the final 30 seconds as the Cats finally sealed the victory.
“I think I have a big role on this team,” Knox said afterward. “It’s March Madness, I can’t really play bad no more. I got to do whatever it takes to win. If my shot’s not going, I’ve got to be able to get rebounds, find my teammates and play defense.
“I think there are some guys on this team that roles are pretty bigger than others and they just got to step up and now it’s win-or-go-home and our teammates need us.”
3. And now a surprise second-round opponent.
Plenty of college hoops experts thought No. 5 seed Kentucky could get upset by No. 12 seed Davidson in the first round in Boise. They were correct about the higher-seeded Wildcats suffering a stunning defeat. Only it was the Arizona Wildcats.
So much for the possible DeAndre Ayton vs. Kentucky/Sean Miller vs. John Calipari second-round matchup scenarios. Pac-12 champion Arizona was no match for No. 13 seed Buffalo, falling 89-68 to the Bulls.
It wasn't even that close. Champions of the MAC, Buffalo made 15 of 30 three-point shots for 51.7 percent, while shooting 54.8 percent overall. The Bulls outrebounded Arizona 32-31, despite the presence of Ayton, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Wes Clark, a senior guard from Detroit, scored 25 points, making 10 of 14 shots. Jeremy Harris, a junior guard out of Greensboro, N.C., scored 23 points. CJ Massinburg, a junior guard from Dallas, made five of eight three-point shots.
The Bulls played hard, outhustling Arizona all 94 feet of the floor. And they've played a tough schedule, losing by six on a neutral floor to Cincinnati, by 11 to St. Bonaventure, by seven at Syracuse and by 16 at Texas A&M. They won't be cowed by Kentucky.
And as for UK, the young Cats must now wrap their heads around the fact they won't be playing star-studded Arizona. Instead, they'll be facing a little-known Buffalo team that just shocked the college basketball world. The Cats can't take the Bulls for granted.
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