LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — The growing pains continue for Kentucky’s youngsters, who this time struggled to finish off an opponent rather than overcome it.
Kevin Knox scored 17 points and the No. 8 Wildcats built a big lead in the second half before withstanding a late rally by Troy to hold on for a 70-62 victory on Monday night.
After having to rally in each of its previous games, the Wildcats (4-1) led throughout against the Trojans (2-3). They built a double-digit lead early and extended it to 21 twice in the second half, the last time at 66-45 with 8:25 remaining and things seemingly clicking.
Just as fast, the Wildcats’ big lead became a needed cushion.
Troy began making baskets, while Kentucky misfired and committed 12 turnovers. The Trojans eventually fought back to within eight on Wesley Person’s three-point play with 1:08 remaining.
“Guys including myself, we got a little comfortable in the game and we already thought we had the game beat,” freshman forward Nick Richards said. “It’s just one of those things that we’ve got to get over and finish games, because we easily could’ve lost that game if it was any longer.”
Fortunately for the Wildcats, Knox came up with the last of its season-high 53 rebounds with 21 seconds left, allowing them to run out the clock and preserve their second victory in the Adolph Rupp Classic named for the legendary Kentucky coach.
Wildcats coach John Calipari followed with another reminder that things are a work in progress with arguably his youngest collection of 18- and 19-year-olds.
“I told them, ‘you played a great (first) half,’” Calipari said. “We’re just not ready to play 40 minutes because they’ll revert, they let go. They go back to their old ways. Whether it’s going to take a loss to a team that we should beat, and then they’ll all get together and say, ‘we gotta stop,’ I don’t know.”
Quade Green had 13 points and reserve forward Wenyen Gabriel 12 for the Wildcats. Hamidou Diallo had a career-high 10 rebounds to go along with eight points.
Person had 17 points and Jordon Varnado and Kevin Baker 15 each for Troy, which shot 36 percent but didn’t quit despite trailing big.
“We could have hung our heads and given up the way we were shooting,” Trojans coach Phil Cunningham said, “but we hung around and got it all the way down to eight.
“Just really proud of our guys for never giving up in a tough situation to pop back and have a chance to get them a little scare there at the end.”
Troy: Controlling the paint in the second half helped the Trojans as they outscored Kentucky 20-10 to claim a 32-30 in that area. Shooting just 1 of 14 in the first half and 4 of 27 overall from 3-point range hurt, though. For a while they were nearly doubled up on the boards as a result and were beaten 53-30. Varnado extended his double-digit scoring streak dating back to last season to 23 games.
Kentucky: After making just 3 of 15 from the free throw line and committing a season-high 22 turnovers against East Tennessee State, the Wildcats improved in those and other statistical categories. They converted 15 of 23 chances, made just 16 turnovers this time and controlled rebounding by a 2-to-1 margin at one point. But their lost focus and allowed the Trojans to make it interesting.
“I wouldn’t say we tried to play it safe,” Diallo said. “I think they started hitting more shots in the second half than in the first half. In the first half, we defended them really well. In the second half, we had a couple of defensive lapses.”
Troy visits East Tennessee State on Wednesday in the third game of the Rupp Classic before wrapping up play Monday against Illinois-Chicago.
Kentucky hosts Fort Wayne on Wednesday in the third game of the Rupp Classic before taking Thanksgiving off.
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