LEXINGTON, KY (UK Athletics) – The Wildcats said they were eager for their first chance to face someone wearing colors other than Blue and White.
When the tip went up for UK’s exhibition against Georgetown College, they certainly played like it.
“At practice, we’ve been getting after each other, competing very hard,” Ashton Hagans said. “So everybody was very excited to come out and let it off against somebody else. That’s what we did at the beginning.”
Kentucky, ranked No. 2 in the preseason editions of both major polls, scored the first 11 points of Sunday’s game and built its lead to as large as 27 points in the first half. The reigning NAIA national champions never wilted and got as close as 12 points early in the second half, but the Cats were too much to handle in an 80-53 victory.
Immanuel Quickley – starting alongside Hagans, Keion Brooks Jr., EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards – played a leading role in UK’s hot start. He scored seven of the Cats’ first nine points and 12 of their first 21, drilling three 3-pointers and again looking like a different player as a sophomore. Quickley finished with 16 points, three assists and no turnovers.
“I think everybody that’s watched him (sees how much he has improved),” John Calipari said. “Most of this becomes the mental part of this where you understand what’s expected and you can do it. And then you work on the things that you need to work on and master things you do well. … I’m proud of him. He made shots today, but it’s more than making shots.”
Hagans, another returning sophomore, had a nice night of his own. He scored 14 points, dished six assists and snagged four steals in playing the kind of defense he came to be known for as a freshman. That included taking over guarding Jake Ohmer, who had 21 points with 16:17 left, after the guard engaged in some friendly trash talk with Hagans. He only scored four more after that.
“He just started talking and after that I was like, ‘Say no more,’ ” Hagans said. “Then I just had to shut it down. I just tried to go out there and stop him because he was a very good player.”
Tyrese Maxey joined his backcourt mates in scoring in double figures with 14 points, once again showing UK’s strength on the perimeter, but the Cats did not leave Sunday without areas for improvement.
Though Nate Sestina was impressive with 11 points and 10 rebounds in his UK debut, he was by far the most productive of the Wildcat bigs. Montgomery had five points on 2-of-7 shooting to go with five rebounds and three blocks, while Richards had six points and five rebounds in 15 minutes before departing with a lower left leg injury suffered early in the second half.
Georgetown actually outrebounded Kentucky for the night, losing the battle of the boards by a count of 45-39. Toughness, it seems, is likely to remain a point of emphasis for Coach Cal.
“They came in and they didn’t have anything to lose,” Brooks said. “They went in and pushed us around a little bit. A lot of the ground they played harder than what we did, so we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and get tougher and continue doing the stuff that we’re doing in practice to build that toughness.”
To close the game, UK went with a small lineup featuring Whitney and Brooks at the four and five, a capper for Calipari’s constant lineup experimentation. All nine of the Wildcats’ available scholarship players played at least 15 minutes, and none more than 26.
“We can (go small) because we can play three guards and be fine,” Calipari said. “Immanuel, obviously Ashton and Tyrese, you got three 6-3ish kind of guards who’ve got some toughness to them so you can do it.”
Hagans played 24 minutes, but the other 16 proved to be problematic for UK. On a night when the Cats held Georgetown to 25% shooting, the Tigers’ best scoring opportunities came when Hagans was on the bench.
“When he was out—I always say, defense starts on the ball,” Calipari said. “And if you can’t keep the ball in front of you, they’re running downhill, they’re shooting layups, they’re getting your bigs in foul trouble. When he wasn’t in, that’s what happened.”
So, needless to say, Coach Cal has plenty to teach from leading up to UK’s second exhibition Friday night against Kentucky State. That’s how it should be.
“We’ve just got a long way to go,” Calipari said. “We’re shorthanded up front. Without Nick, we’re really shorthanded. Don’t know how long he’ll be out. But it’s everybody buying into defensively how you gotta play. To do that, you can’t be thinking just offense. You gotta focus on our team. … Just about every year, I’m in the same mode. How are we going to do this?”