Kentucky Finishes Non-Conference Play With Win Over Kansas in Big 12/SEC Challenge

    Kentucky's once-maligned non-conference resume is officially complete, capped off by a 71-63 win over No. 9 Kansas on Saturday, and its turnaround is

    January 26, 2019

    Kentucky’s once-maligned non-conference resume is officially complete, capped off by a 71-63 win over No. 9 Kansas on Saturday, and its turnaround is fitting of the No. 8-ranked Wildcats. Kentucky’s final three non-conference games were wins over North Carolina (neutral), Louisville (road) and now Kansas after the Wildcats were run off the floor by Duke in the first game of the season.

    They’ve won nine of their last 10 games as they trend closer to their No. 2 ranking in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, where they were ranked behind only Kansas. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have lost four of their last 10 games – all on the road – as they’ve struggled to replace the production of center Udoka Azubuike, who’s out for the season with a torn ligament in his right hand.

    Kansas really missed Azubuike in Lexington, where Kentucky’s frontcourt of PJ Washington and Reid Travis combined for 38 points on 14-of-28 shooting and 25 rebounds, often overwhelming Kansas’ Dedric Lawson. If you include Kentucky guard Keldon Johnson, who had a double-double of his own with 15 points and 10 rebounds while playing the “three,” the difference in production from three through five between the two teams becomes even more stark.

    [RELATED: These transfers are making an impact on Top-25 teams]

    Kentucky had 17 offensive rebounds, including seven by Travis, and it protected the rim defensively with eight blocks – five of which were by reserve forward Nick Richards. On one offensive rebound in the first half, Travis grabbed a missed jumper from teammate Jemarl Baker Jr., patiently waited for a second-chance opportunity as he was engulfed by four Kansas players and he made the layup through contact, drawing a foul on Lawson in the process.

    The Wildcats simply beat the Jayhawks up inside, winning the rebounding battle by 14, and on the perimeter, freshman point guard Ashton Hagans harassed Kansas’ ball-handlers while Tyler Herro denied passing lanes to Kansas’ second-leading scorer, Lagerald Vick.

    Hagans had three steals, giving him 32 in his last nine games, while Vick went more than 18 and a half minutes in the second half without taking a shot. Vick made two threes in the final 90 seconds but Kansas was trailing by 10 and nine points, respectively, at the team of each make. The threes were too little, too late, and they simply kept the deficit from getting too out of hand for Kansas.

    Vick finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting.

    Kentucky’s own three-point shooting was backloaded.

    The Wildcats were just 4-of-18 (22.2%) from behind the arc against the Jayhawks and they were 0-of-8 from deep in the first half, which wasn’t the first time this season they’ve struggled from three-point range.

    Johnson hit Kentucky’s first three of the game with 18:40 left in the second half off an assist from Hagans following an offensive rebound from Washington.

    It extended Kentucky’s lead to five. Each of the Wildcats’ first three three-pointers extended their lead from a one-possession lead to two-possession lead. On Kentucky’s first possession after the under-4 media timeout, Johnson hit another three as part of a run that saw the Wildcats’ advantage grow to 10 points in the final minutes.

    Kansas tried to mount a comeback with Vick’s pair of threes, plus one from Lawson, who finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds but lacked a running mate to battle with Travis and Washington down low.

    Washington blocked Lawson’s layup attempt on Kansas’ final possession, which was a fitting end for Kentucky and its dominating frontcourt performance.

    While Kentucky’s non-conference finale was delayed due to the late January scheduling of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, it came at the right time for the Wildcats.

    Here’s a look at Kentucky’s resume through Saturday, broken down by quadrant:

    Quadrant 1: 5-2

    Quadrant 2: 2-1

    Quadrant 3: 5-0

    Quadrant 4: 4-0

    Kentucky is a flawed team. The Wildcats’ 35.7 percent three-point shooting entering Saturday ranked 100th nationally but they’ve struggled from deep in some of their biggest games.

    Their bench provided little in terms of production against Kansas as the four reserves who earned playing time combined for zero points on 0-of-7 shooting, five rebounds, one assist and three turnovers, albeit with six blocks, too.

    But Kentucky’s starting frontcourt is athletic and active, point guard Ashton Hagans is strong at the point of attack on both ends of the floor, wing Keldon Johnson will be the most talented player on the floor more times than not and guard Tyler Herro can get hot from behind the arc.

    After the transfer of Quade Green, Kentucky’s rotation, especially in its backcourt, got thinner, but the Wildcats have rounded into form as a legitimate top-10 team and they finally have the resume to match their AP ranking, making them one of the hottest teams in the country entering February.

    MORE: No. 1 Tennessee overcomes largest deficit of season, Duke’s Tre Jones returns

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