Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s NCAA Tournament win over Providence
Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 61-53 victory over Providence in the NCAA Tournament on Friday night:
1. UK played ‘Refuse to Lose’
Oscar Tshiebwe wasn’t going to let Kentucky lose. UK’s 6-foot-9 center pulled down an NCAA Tournament school-record 25 rebounds. He had three steals, two blocked shots and a game-ending smile on his face near the width of the Greensboro Coliseum.
Jacob Toppin wasn’t going to let Kentucky lose. UK’s senior forward scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds, made all six of his foul shots and came up with key plays at crunch time to help the Cats secure the victory.
Antonio Reeves wasn’t going to let Kentucky lose. UK’s sharpshooter was at times the lone bright light on a murky offensive night. Still, the Illinois State transfer finished with a game-high 22 points, hitting 8 of his 18 shots, including 5 of 9 from three-point range. Those were the only made three-pointers by Kentucky the entire game.
“What did I tell you when you were missing shots?” Calipari asked Reeves during the postgame press conference.
“Keep on shooting,” Reeves answered.
After living an entire year with the scars of last year’s first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s, Kentucky adopted the John Calipari “Refuse to Lose” mindset on Friday. It took at 22-21 lead with 7:33 left in the first half and never let go.
It wasn’t always pretty — UK was just 7 of 28 from the floor in the second half — but it was a game where the Cats flat-out refused to lose.
2. Kentucky won the game an usual way for this UK team
Calipari’s club entered its NCAA opener ranked 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy, but an un-Calipari-like 75th in defensive efficiency. Meanwhile, Providence was ranked 15th in offensive efficiency, just the type of team that gave the Cats fits all season long.
This time the tables turned. This wasn’t Kentucky’s best offensive night. As previously mentioned, UK shot an icy 25 percent from the floor in the second half and 36.5 percent for the game. The Cats were just 5 of 16 from three-point range, including 1 of 6 in the second half.
Didn’t matter. Kentucky survived with defense. Providence shot 29.6 percent the second half and 36.2 percent for the game. The Friars were a mere 5 of 24 from three-point range, including 2 of 13 in the second half. Most of those missed shots were contested shots.
Key stat: Ed Cooley’s club averaged 0.813 points per possession, the lowest PPP by a UK opponent since Bellarmine averaged 0.709 way back on Nov. 29, 2022.
And the Cats bottled up their former teammate, limiting Providence’s Bryce Hopkins to seven points and eight rebounds in 39 minutes. Afterward, Calipari consoled an emotional Hopkins with a hug in the handshake line.
3. Next question: Can these Cats keep it up?
At the end of the first half, I tweeted that if this Kentucky team plays the way it did the first 20 minutes it had a chance to, in the words of Calipari, “do something crazy” in this tournament.
The execution slipped over the final 20 minutes but not the effort. The Cats played hard from wire-to-wire. They appeared locked in throughout, never backing down from a typical, physical, grind-it-out Big East team in the Friars.
There’s a caveat, of course. As we all know, this has been an up-and-down Kentucky team. Terrific one game, something less than terrific the next. And vice versa. The Big Dance question all along has been can postseason Kentucky do what regular-season Kentucky failed to do — play at an elite level for an extended stretch.
In his postgame press conference, Calipari pushed back on the idea that his team felt relief after the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2019.
“If there’s relief then what are you doing here,” the coach said. “I want them to experience joy.”
Can Kentucky keep the joyride going Sunday?
We shall see.
The streak is over. Kentucky beats Providence for first NCAA Tournament win in four years.
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