With the Utah Valley Wolverines in town, Kentucky found itself in yet another battle against yet another mid-major. This time around, however, the Wildcats managed to take over in the second half and grind out an 82-74 victory.
To start the game, the Wolverines threw a counter punch to everything the Wildcats threw their way. There were a total of four lead changes and five ties in the first half, with neither team leading by more than four points for the first 14:32 of the game.
After a three-pointer by Trey Woodbury of Utah Valley tied the game at 20 apiece, Kentucky pushed the lead to eight with 2:06 to go before intermission.
Offensively, both teams struggled to get much of anything going in the first half, with Kentucky going into intermission shooting 33% on 10-30 shooting (1-8 from three) and Utah Valley shooting 35.5% from the field (4-14 from three). The Wildcats turned the ball over eight times compared to their four assists while the Wolverines totaled five turnovers and six assists at the break.
20 minutes in, Nick Richards led the way with 11 points and seven rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey (2-8 shooting, 1-3 from three) and Ashton Hagans (3-8 shooting) each added eight points. Maxey also had three rebounds and two assists at the break, while Hagans managed three rebounds and an assist. Nate Sestina managed five points (1-4 shooting) and six rebounds, while Kahlil Whitney added two points and four rebounds.
To get the second half started, Kentucky’s eight-point lead quickly spread to 16 in just three minutes of action. After holding at least a ten point lead for the next seven minutes, Utah Valley responded with a three to cut the deficit to just seven at the 11:11 mark. The lead would then shrink to just two with 6:37 to go.
After a crucial steal by Hagans on defense, Utah Valley’s TJ Washington was called for a technical foul, allowing Hagans to go to the line and put the Cats back up by six with 5:54 remaining.
Instead of capitalizing on the momentum shift, both teams decided to trade points over the next several possessions. Utah Valley hit a layup, and Richards followed with a lob dunk. Two free throw makes for Utah Valley, two made shots at the line for Johnny Juzang.
After two more free throws for the Wolverines to cut it back to four, Juzang was called for a charge, allowing TJ Washington to respond with a deep three on the other end to bring the score to 68-67 Kentucky with 3:26 remaining. Kentucky’s 16-point lead with 17 minutes to go was down to just one in crunch time.
With their backs against the wall, the Wildcats responded, as Sestina finished a tough and-one bucket in the paint and converted the free throw to push Kentucky’s lead back to four with 1:34. After two crucial stops on the defensive end, Richards finished a tip-in with 48 seconds to go to bring UK’s lead to six.
When Utah Valley fought back with two 3-point jumpers within 20 seconds, Kentucky responded with an impressive eight consecutive free throw makes – six from Hagans alone – and nine of ten overall in the final 41 seconds.
Keion Brooks Jr. put the final point on the board with ten ticks remaining, allowing for an 82-74 victory for the Wildcats.
In the scoring column, Hagans led the way with 26 points on 7-14 shooting and 12-12 from the line to go with five rebounds, five assists, and one steal. After a slow start, the sophomore guard made an effort to attack the basket and initiate contact to go to the line when the team needed points. For a player that John Calipari claimed was playing at roughly 80%, Hagans had himself a game.
The co-MVP of the game – Richards – wasn’t far behind with 21 points of his own on 8-11 shooting and 5-5 from the line, including ten rebounds to solidify just the third double-double of his career and his second in three games. Like Hagans, Richards was one of the few consistent offensive contributors on the team, providing cleanup work in the paint and knocking down numerous jumpers out to 15 feet.
Maxey rounded out double digit scorers for the Wildcats, finishing with 14 points (4-14 shooting, 1-5 from three), five rebounds, and four assists.
Despite an off shooting night, Nate Sestina also flirted with a double-double and led Kentucky on the glass, finishing with eight points and 12 rebounds in the victory.
For the Wolverines, Washington led the way with 22 points on 8-18 shooting and 5-12 from three. He also added five rebounds and five assists in the loss.
Woodbury also added 17 points on 5-11 shooting and 3-7 from three to go with three rebounds and an assist.
Jamison Overton rounded out the Utah Valley double-digit scorers with 10 points (4-8 shooting).
As a team, Kentucky finished the day shooting 43.9% overall and 8.3% from three, dropping their season averages even further down. Going into the evening, the Wildcats were ranked 185th in the nation in overall field goal percentage at 44% and 316th in the nation in 3-point percentage at 24.5%.
Passing the ball, they slightly topped their season average of 10.7 assists with a whopping 11 compared to 14 total turnovers. Going into the day, the Wildcats were 13th in the SEC and 295th in the nation in assists, along with 13th in the SEC and 270th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at just 0.8.
On a positive note, Kentucky finished with 46 rebounds compared to 27 for Utah Valley – a 19-rebound deficit – though the Wildcats were only plus-three on the offensive glass at 12-9.
With the victory, Kentucky is now 51-12 under John Calipari coming off a loss, with the program’s undefeated streak of never losing back-to-back home games holding strong again.
On the year, the Wildcats now move on to 3-1 on the year with Mt. Saint Mary’s set to come to Lexington on Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. ET. Lamar will then come to Rupp on Sunday at 6:00 p.m. ET, their second game in three days. Both games will be played on the SEC Network.