LEXINGTON, Ky. — East Tennessee State, its coach admitted afterward, came to Rupp Arena on Friday night believing it might catch seventh-ranked Kentucky sleeping after a near-miss Tuesday against Kansas. And it sure looked like the Buccaneers were right when they raced out to an 18-8 lead.
“Nah, nah, nah,” Wildcats point guard Quade Green said. “They thought they caught us.”
But then Green took over, swishing a corner 3-pointer, baseline jump shot, three from the top of the key and a pull-up, mid-range jumper in rapid succession. It was a blitz — 10 points in 144 seconds — that stirred Kentucky from its slumber and turned an upset alert into a 78-61 victory.
“He was the guy that gave them a spark when they needed it,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said. “He’s a good player and, just watching them play, just a small sample of what I’v seen, they need a dude to be aggressive like that at the point.”
Green, a freshman who scored just 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting three days earlier against the Jayhawks, sank his first five shots Friday and finished 9 of 13 from the field — 3 of 5 from deep — for a game-high 21 points.
“It was a shooter’s zone,” Green explained of his early assault. “If they’re playing me wrong, I’m gonna knock their head off. If they’re far back or they’re playing too tight, I just go for the kill.”
Green had been the Wildcats’ best 3-point shooter in preseason games, then took a more passive role in their first three regular-season games. Some of that was due to diminished playing time because of defensive lapses — 6-foot-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a better stopper at point guard — but Kentucky coach John Calipari made clear Friday that he agrees with Forbes’ assessment.
“We need him to be aggressive,” UK’s coach said, “and to make jump shots.”
Green sank 8 of 10 to open the game Friday. For a former McDonald’s All-American, that wasn’t his first such zone. In fact, he said he’s been dialed in like that “a lot” in his young career.
“I went for 37 and I think I missed like three shots in high school,” Green said. “But that doesn’t matter now. I gotta set some new records.”
Gilgeous-Alexander played one more minute than Green against East Tennessee State — 10 points, 6 assists, 2 steals off the bench — but Kentucky’s offense is far more potent with the little guy running things. Calipari and everyone with eyeballs already knew that, of course, but Friday night reinforced it.
Against Kansas, the Cats learned that freshman forward Kevin Knox can be a go-to guy. He showed that again in the second half against the Buccaneers when Knox turned a 1-for-6 shooting start into a 5-for-7 finish. The 6-foot-9 forward followed his 20-point outburst against the Jayhawks with 17 points and 10 rebounds against ETSU.
But he needs help, and what Green did Friday might’ve been an equally important revelation.