By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — The first half showed young, inexperienced Kentucky.
The Wildcats missed their last 15 shots of the half, got outhustled and outrebounded, and struggled to stop Utah Valley. That’s why they trailed 34-25 at intermission.
Maybe they were just getting over the news that R.J. Barrett, the top recruit in the 2018 class, picked Duke over UK about an hour before tip-off. Whatever it was, in the second half UK came to life with a unit of Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nick Richards, Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel.
Knox hit a 3 and dunked on the fast break. Diallo had a steal in jam. In 45 seconds, UK cut the lead from 37-25 to 37-32.
That started an 18-0 surge — UK also went to a zone defense and coach John Calipari made no substitutions — that put the game back in UK’s favor. In 3 minutes, 25 seconds, UK went 8-for-8 from the field to take a 43-37 lead it never relinquished.
Kentucky won 73-63 behind 18 points (8-for-16 shooting), five rebounds and three assists from Diallo and seven points, 13 rebounds from Wenyen Gabriel.
“I liked that Wenyen kept playing and that’s what you have to do,” Calipari said.
Calipari doesn’t like to play zone defense but it created energy on defense to stop dribble-penetration and got the Cats in sync offensively as they were 19 of 32 from the field the second half.
“We have not spent a lot of time preparing to play offensively against zone. It made us a little more passive,” Utah Valley coach Mark Pope, a starter on UK’s 1996 national championship team, said. “It was turnovers in transition defense that really killed us. That’s just a factor of being early in the season. That was a big factor. It was a smart move by Cal.”
Calipari said he used the zone to get his team “going” and that’s what he wanted.
“We had too many guys just getting beat on the dribble and out of position,” Calipari said.
Pope said any zone defense will have holes, but with UK’s length he could see it as an “effective” defense for the Cats.
Kentucky had 11 steals, including four by Kevin Knox, and got 23 points off turnovers. Gabriel and Nick Richards (10 points) both blocked three shots. Knox had 12 points but was just 3-for-13 from the field but he did have six rebounds.
“I thought Nick did some good stuff. Kevin kind of struggled,” Calipari said.
Calipari saw a team that needs a lot of work — and a short amount of time to do it with Vermont coming in Sunday and then playing No. 4 Kansas in Chicago Tuesday.
“I backed off them in practice as I said I would and now I am going home to attack my dog,” Calipari joked. “This team is different. I have never been this hard on a team since I have been here.”
Kentucky likely will need to play much better Sunday when it hosts Vermont, a NCAA Tournament team last year.
Vermont went 29-6 and won the America East Conference with a 16-0 record, the first time in league history a team did not suffer a conference loss. The Catamounts return four starters off the team that had a 21-game win streak snapped by Purdue in the NCAA.
The Catamounts were fourth in the nation in field goal percentage (49.4) last year. Sophomore Anthony Lamb, a 6-7 forward, averaged 12.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year — and shot 41.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s got help from 6-8 senior Payton Henson (11.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 31.9 3-point).
“I heard they (Vermont players) were doing back flips in their rooms. That game Sunday is going to be hard,” Calipari said.
Vermont also has an experienced point guard in senior Trae Bell-Haynes (11.2 points. 3.8 assists). He was an honorable mention All-American and declared for the NBA draft before returning to Vermont.
Junior Ernie Duncan was a 39.9 percent 3-point shooter last season. The 6-3 shooting guard hit 75 3-pointers last year.
Vermont’s biggest question is whether it will maintain its defensive intensity. Last season, the Catamounts ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense (62.1 points per game). They lost their best defender in Dre Wills but return everyone else.
Utah Valley was a team lacking experience that Vermont has.
“Everybody has taken a crooked path to get here. None of my guys are the chosen ones. We are crooked path guys,” Pope said. “I am not a big moral victory guy. We might be way ahead of ourselves thinking we could roll into this arena and play against this great team and win. But that’s what we think.”
And it’s what Vermont will think, too.