LEXINGTON, Ky. – There wasn’t much to be encouraged about in second-seeded Kentucky’s 79-70 victory over 15th-seeded Northern Kentucky in the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament on Friday night, a game that started after 10 p.m. and through which the Wildcats occasionally sleep-walked.
Mercifully, though, it eventually ended at 12:18 a.m. and, with that sleepy affair out of the way, set the stage for Sunday’s showdown with Wichita State. Remember the last time those two programs played in the second round of the NCAA Tournament? An instant classic in 2014.
Friday’s slog with the Norse (24-11), who were making their March Madness debut, was anything but a classic. Kentucky (30-5) led by just two points with seven minutes left in the first half and by only seven with two minutes to go in the game. If not for a combined 36 points by De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe and a monster rebounding night from Bam Adebayo, NKU might’ve really scared the Final Four hopefuls.
A worrisome trend continued, as star Malik Monk’s funk extended to five consecutive games. He missed all six of his 3-point attempts and scored just 12 points.
Hardly a masterpiece, it was the Wildcats’ 12th consecutive victory and secured coach John Calipari’s 10th career 30-win season — his fourth in eight years at Kentucky. And the Cats did get a few positive individual performances within a disjointed team effort.
Player of the game
Make it five straight strong games by the freshman point guard, Fox, who hit 8 of 15 shots for 19 points to go with 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. After a midseason slump, Fox has averaged 20.8 points and shot 56.3 percent in the last five games.
Stat line of the game
Adebayo and senior Derek Willis share this distinction. Adebayo delivered 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds, like Fox continuing a recent hot streak. He has now averaged 14.4 points and 11.0 boards over the last 10 games. Willis also extended a string of strong performances with a stat-stuffing night: 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists and 2 steals. He’s now blocked 16 shots in the last six games.
Kentucky’s early 11-point lead disappeared in a hurry when the Wildcats missed seven consecutive shots (mostly on bad jumpers when driving layups were working just fine) and the Norse mounted a 9-0 run to pull within 23-21 with 6:51 to go in the first half. Then Fox took over. He buried a mid-range jump shot, dunked off a Willis steal and sank a driving bank shot (through a foul) in quick succession. That launched a 12-0 Kentucky run that provided all the breathing room it would need on a night that sometimes Calipari needed to check to see that his team was, in fact, still breathing.
What’s next for Kentucky basketball
The Wildcats will play Wichita State in the Round of 32 on Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The 10th-seeded Shockers (31-4) knocked off seventh-seeded Dayton on Friday. Many believe Wichita State got a terrible seeding by the NCAA Tournament committee, and considering it is up to No. 6 in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical rankings (Kentucky is No. 4), that seems right.
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky box score