Kentucky basketball: Advancing is all that mattered. Just ask Arizona.

BOISE, Idaho — You could be upset that Kentucky’s absurd 3-point streak finally ended on Thursday night. You might be concerned that the 5 th-seeded Wildcats led 12 th-seeded Davidson by just two points with 3:17 to go in a first-round NCAA Tournament game.

But you’d feel better about what’s next if you focus on this fact: Two freshmen making their March Madness debut had the fortitude to sink 13 of 14 free throws and combine for 17 points in the final three minutes to hold off 3-point bombing Davidson, 78-73, and advance.

“It was a good one for this young team,” coach John Calipari said. “First time they’ve been in the NCAA Tournament, not knowing what to expect [and] Kevin made some shots and Shai controlled the game at the end to take us over the finish line, barely.”

Barely is plenty. Instead of an anticipated matchup with fourth-seeded Arizona and projected No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton, Kentucky (25-10) will face 13 th-seeded Buffalo in the second round on Saturday — because these opening games a tricky and trip up more talented teams every year.

That the Wildcats avoided a similar fate with five freshman starters is no small feat.

Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, less than a year removed from high school prom and a week after lighting up the SEC Tournament, made every clutch play down the stretch. Knox finished with 25 points and 6 rebounds, while Gilgeous-Alexander stuffed the stat sheet with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and just 1 turnover.

“We lean on Shai and Kev, especially at the end of the game,” sophomore Wenyen Gabriel said. “We go to them and we count on them to make plays. They always pull through.”

Kentucky built a 10-point halftime lead after holding Davidson, one of the nation’s most dangerous teams from deep, to just 3 of 15 beyond the arc. That disappeared in a hail of threes — much like the SEC title game against Tennessee on Sunday — as the other Wildcats hit 8 of 18 in the final 20 minutes.

But Calipari’s Cats won for the eighth time in the last nine games despite none of their starters having ever played in the postseason and even though they were outscored 33-0 from the 3-point line. Ponder just how ridiculous, and frankly impressive, that is. And now maybe Kentucky got its ugly one out of the way.

“That’s all we were thinking about: Just make sure we get this win. We don’t want to go home early,” Knox said. “All freshmen, a lot on the line tonight, but we just came out and made sure we played hard, fought for 40 minutes, and just listened to the coaches.”
That last part is a biggie. Knox, in particular, seems to have turned a corner in the listens-to-coaches department. Starting last week at the SEC Tournament, he’s cranked up his rebounding and defensive effort and refined his shot selection.

Instead of a bunch of bad 3-point looks, Knox leaned on his bread and butter plays Thursday: the driving floater and the mid-range baseline jump shot. He sank 8 of 13 shots inside the arc — and 9 of 11 free throws.

“That’s kind of what I needed to work on this whole season: staying more aggressive, getting to the rack. So why not start now in March? It’s win or go home,” Knox said. “That’s what I work on in my workouts: floaters and those wide-open [midrange] shots. I’m going to do what I do in the workout: get to my spots on the floor and knock them down.”

In that frame of mind, Knox, the 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American, is virtually unstoppable.

Kentucky, playing without rebounding machine Jarred Vanderbilt for the fourth straight game, also got a huge lift (again) from Sacha Killeya Jones — 8 points, 6 rebounds — and defensive boost from Hamidou Diallo, who had 3 blocks, a steal and several aggressively contested shots in the first half.

But it’s Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander, SEC Tournament MVP and an almost automatic free-throw shooter, who will determine how long these Cats will dance.

“We’ve both matured a lot,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We both know our roles and we both are willing to take them on.”

The post Kentucky basketball: Advancing is all that mattered. Just ask Arizona. appeared first on SEC Country.

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