No. 7 Kentucky overcomes another slow start to hold off gritty East Tennessee State, 78-61

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Kentucky coach John Calipari yells instructions to his team during a 78-61 win over East Tennessee State Friday night at Rupp Arena. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky got back on track, but it wasn’t easy.

Coming off a 65-61 loss to No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic earlier this week, Quade Green scored a career-high 21 points to lead the seventh-ranked Wildcats to a 78-61 victory over East Tennessee State Friday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) struggled early as East Tennessee State built a double-digit lead, but recovered to hold off the Buccaneers who are in rebuilding mode after losing four starters from last year’s squad that won 51 games during the past two years, including 27 victories last season. East Tennessee State lost to Northern Kentucky University 81-63 in its season opener, followed by a win over Savannah State earlier this week.

Although his team won by double figures, Kentucky coach John Calipari said his team gave a sub-par effort following the loss to the Jayhawks.

“I knew we would have a let down after Kansas,” he said. “But it just shows, they’re just, they’re not mature enough to figure all this out and that every game matters and you’re being evaluated personally and us as a team every game we play. Guys went out and, I’m just going to go get mine, and when you do that, you just don’t look like a very good basketball player. You look like, does he really get it? We had a lot of that kind of play today.”

Green made nine-of-13 field goals from the field and dished out three assists. Kevin Knox followed Green with 17 points, PJ Washington added 12 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 10. Knox and Washington combined for 20 points in the second half, with Knox scoring 14 during the final frame. Knox completed a double-double with 10 rebounds, all of which came on the defensive end.

Knox said he wasn’t sure what contributed to the slow start, but was glad the Wildcats rebounded, especially in the second half.

“This is definitely an ugly win,” he said. “We’ll take the win, but we don’t want to win like that. Like coach Cal said in the locker room, if they’re hitting their shots we probably would’ve lost. Against good teams, we can’t play like we did tonight. Like Cal says, enjoy the win and we got to get back to work.”

Kentucky trailed 18-8 during the first eight minutes, but rallied and took a 36-30 lead at the break. The Wildcats made seven of their last nine field goals that sparked a 7-0 run during the last 3:34 of the first half.

East Tennessee State (1-2) made six 3-pointers in the first half, but made just two field goals on 10 attempts to end the opening half as the Wildcats stretched out a razor-thin lead.

“I thought the first half, we had things going our way,” East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes said. “I thought we played really under control offensively. We caught them at a good time coming off an emotional game against Kansas on Tuesday. I knew that coming in, they were right for the pickings. We played a real solid first half (but) I thought we we left some points on the table late in the half. We missed some baskets, some easy baskets and that hurt us going (into the second half).”

Green led Kentucky with 12 points in the opening half, scoring 10 of those during a two-minute span to help the Wildcats rally from an early double-digit deficit.

Kentucky, which had 18 turnovers against the Jayhawks, committed 22 against the Buccaneers, including nine in the opening half. Although turnovers were an issue, the Wildcats dished out 17 assists, with 10 of those coming in the first half.

Four games into the season, Calipari added that he’s striving to get the Wildcats on the right path.

“It’s a process,” he said. “I would tell our fans, just enjoy this, because I’m the one dying. You should be enjoying it, watching these kids, we got great kids. I’m just here to tell you that really solid, good kids that I’ve been very tough on and probably dragging them faster than they really are capable of doing this. I’ve given them so much stuff. We’re preparing them like we would a normal team here and they’re probably not ready for all that stuff, but that’s my job, to make this — to do things that they’re not sure they can do.”

Forbes said Kentucky’s defense was a difference in the second half.

“They came out and they defended like they’re capable of defending,” Forbes said. “That was my biggest worry, was that we’d have a hard time scoring. I thought they ramped it up and caused us a lot of problems.”

Peter Jurkin led the Buccaneers with 17 points, followed by David Burrell with 11.

Gametracker: Troy at Kentucky, 8 p.m., Monday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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