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NCAA Tournament: Kentucky overcomes challenge from Northern Kentucky in opener

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Northern Kentucky wasn’t intimidated by Kentucky. The Norse were simply overmatched.

De’Aaron Fox scored 19 points to lead the second-seeded Wildcats to a 79-70 victory Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky outscored Northern Kentucky 15-3 in the final six minutes of the second half to build a double-digit lead that blossomed to 18 in the second half. Northern Kentucky outscored the Wildcats 46-41 in the second half, but didn’t pose a serious threat.

Northern Kentucky gave UK all it could handle Friday night in Indianapolis (Photo by Tammie Brown)

Kentucky coach John Calipari was disappointed in his team’s defensive performance in the second against the Norse, who hit eight 3-pointers, including five in the second half.

“We know we’ve got to play better, no question,” the Kentucky coach said. “I expect that we will.”

Bam Adebayo followed Fox with 15 points and 18 rebounds, while Isaiah Briscoe chipped in with 17 points for the Wildcats. Kentucky leading scorer Malik Monk finished with 12 points.

Calipari said his team’s game plan centered around Adebayo.

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“Our whole thing was, we’re going to him,” Calipari said. “We knew they’d trap, which they did. He still ended up getting balls and they fouled him.”

Fox and Adebayo combined for 20 points in the first half as Adebayo tallied six of Kentucky’s first 14 points, while Fox sparked a 13-0 run with three straight baskets after the Norse had pulled to within 23-21 with 6:46 remaining in the opening half.

From that point on, it was pretty much all Wildcats as Kentucky (30-5) reached the 30-win plateau for the second time in the past three years and the fourth time in Calipari’s eight seasons as coach of the Wildcats.

Calipari’s squad takes a 12-game winning streak into Sunday’s second-round matchup against Wichita State, which defeated Dayton 64-58 Friday night in the third of four first-round games at Bankers Life Field house.

Under Calipari, the Wildcats, making a record 56th appearance in the Big Dance, improved to 46-10 in NCAA openers and 24-5 overall in the prestigious event.

Making its first appearance in the tourney, Northern Kentucky, the Horizon League Tournament champion, finished the season at 24-11 under John Brannen, a former assistant coach at Alabama and Eastern Kentucky University.

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The Norse were led in scoring by Lavone Holland II with 22 points and Carson Williams added 21. Drew McDonald contributed with 14.

Brannen said the loss to the Wildcats served as a learning experience for his team.

“In order to have success in the postseason, you’ve got to be there and get a taste of it,” Brannen said. “Guys with teams that advance have been here before and experienced it. We’ll take stock in it when we get (back home).”

Rematch set

In the last meeting between the Shockers and the Wildcats, Kentucky, then a No, 8 seed in the Midwest Region, defeated Wichita State, a No. 1 seed , 78-76 at St. Louis in 2014. The Wildcats eventually reached the Final Four, losing to Connecticut 75-71 in the national championship game.

The Shockers (31-4) are a No. 10 seed this season, a positioning Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said his team is accustomed to during the postseason.

“I’m kind of used to the short end of the stick, if you will, on the seedings,” he said. “But that being said, we usually wear the dark uniforms, and we’ve won (10) games in the last four years.”

Instate history

Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball in 2013 after leading Madison Central High School to its first state title. After guiding Owen County to a school-record 29 victories, Williams was tabbed Kentucky’s top player last year. Holland and the Ballard Bruins lost to Madison Central in the state finals four years ago. Holland threw down a highlight reel slam dunk in the first half.

Hawkins came off the bench and scored seven points for the Wildcats. Williams averaged 10.5 points per game during the regular-season and was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman squad. Hawkins made the Southeastern Conference All-Tournament team last weekend.

Next game: Kentucky vs. Wichita State, Sunday, 2:40 p.m. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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