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Wildcats overcome poor free-throw shooting to top UNC Asheville 89-57 in season opener

Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison reacted as he missed a free throw in the first half Friday against UNC Asheville. Kentucky won XX-XX. (Photo by James Pennington)

Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison reacted as he missed a free throw in the first half Friday against UNC Asheville. Kentucky won 89-57. (Photo by James Pennington)


Fouls were a problem in Kentucky’s season-opening 89-57 win over UNC Asheville. The Bulldogs were called for 32 team fouls—one player fouled out, and five more had four fouls—and Kentucky racked up 20. The author of this article was called for a few sitting innocently courtside, and you, the reader, were just assessed one as you finished reading this sentence.
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It wouldn’t have been such a problem for the Wildcats if they had hit free throws, but a 30-of-48 performance from the line—that’s 62.5 percent—nearly rendered the inherent advantage null and void. And coach John Calipari said the foul-line shortcomings raised the question to him:


“‘How do I get you the ball late in the game?’ Then I said, ‘Is there anybody in the Craft (Center) tonight? Go over and shoot free throws. Walk 12 steps across the street and go shoot free throws.”


The litany of fouls wasn’t a result of an unusually rough game or an official’s nitpicking. The NCAA reviewed how it calls fouls in the offseason, and officials are putting new emphasis on how fouls are called on the ball this season. The game had gotten too rough, and the new emphasis on calling fouls is designed to discourage contact in the lane for the sake of calling both offensive and defensive fouls, hoping the floor opens up and scoring increases across the country. The new rules will likely come with a grace period full of games like Friday’s, in which fouls are called to the near-point of exhaustion.


UNC Asheville coach Nick McDevitt had no problem with how the game was called.


“I didn’t feel like we got an unfair shake,” he said. “They are hard to guard. With the new point of emphasis—not new rules, just new points of emphasis—they are actually enforcing the rules that we’ve had. It’s just hard to contain guys that are that quick, that big, that athletic, that skilled. They are good.”


One player who thrived at the line was Julius Randle. He is apt to thrive when any facet of basketball is concerned. He finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds in his much-anticipated collegiate debut, finishing 6-of-12 from the floor and 11-of-13 from the free-throw line.


“I think as the season goes on, everybody will adjust to it,” Randle said of the free-throw situation. “I think something similar happened like that in the NBA where it was a lot of fouls called early in the season, but the players adjusted to it, I think. I think it’ll be all right.”


Randle’s style welcomes the newfound emphasis on foul-calling. As explosive as he is with the ball at 6-9 and 250 pounds, he will draw contact just about anywhere on the floor. All six of his field goals Friday were in the paint, a combination of drives, layups and dunks. A team without a man to match up with Randle—good luck finding that—or the necessary team discipline to slow him down and force him to pass or miss without fouling—good luck doing that—will foul him a lot.


Randle had the right idea, Calipari said.


“Go to the basket and ball-fake and get fouled,” Calipari said. “Don’t avoid and miss a one-footer. Get fouled. Get to the line. We’ve told them if you don’t ahve a clear path, come to a one-two stop and get the ball to the basket. Get fouled.”


But then there’s the rest of Kentucky’s team, and especially the guards. James Young and Aaron Harrison were each 3-of-6 from the line. Andrew Harrison was 6-of-9. Add those three, and the Wildcats’ three starting guards finished 12-of-21 on free throws.


Marcus Lee was 3-of-7 from the foul line, but Calipari was pleased overall with the freshman in his first game: He came off the bench and finished with 17 points in 15 minutes, shooting 7-of-8 from the floor, all on just-about-point-blank attempts. Alex Poythress had 10 points and 13 rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. Four of his five made field goals were direct results from his own offensive rebounds, and the fifth was a slam on an assist from Willie Cauley-Stein after he rebounded, predictably, a missed free throw.


The Wildcats pulled away in the second half after holding a 41-31 halftime lead, and the final point margin was not indicative of how Calipari felt his team performed.


“We were awful in the first half,” Calipari said. “I mean, couldn’t make a—probably missed five one-footers and every free throw. Now, let me say this: Their first college game.”

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