UK overpowers Eastern in Wildcats’ home opener
LEXINGTON (KT) — Kentucky is still riding high and showed no signs of a letdown with a 91-49 win over Eastern Kentucky in its home opener Friday night.
Coming off a 69-62 win over top-ranked Michigan State, the second-ranked Wildcats started fast and never let up in winning their 12th straight home opener under John Calipari.
Kentucky is poised to take over the top spot when the Associated Press Top 25 is released Monday.
“I think Kentucky is the best team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “They beat Michigan State for a reason and they’re going to continue to win. They’ve got a great team and give them a lot of credit.”
The Wildcats (2-0) never trailed and improved to 13-0 overall against the Colonels. Kentucky scored the first 14 points and held Eastern scoreless for the first seven minutes.
“We started the game and we were in shock,” Hamilton said. “We had the shock face and we didn’t respond. We didn’t handle adversity in the first half and dug too big of a hole.”
Tyrese Maxey, who scored 26 points in the win over the Spartans, tallied just two points in the first half and finished with nine points.
“By the end of the year what you saw in New York will be even another level,” Calipari said. “What you saw — because he can make all those plays. But this is a game where we needed to have seven guys with nine points. We needed to have that. And he accepted it. How about that?”
Eastern Kentucky’s press wasn’t a hindrance for the Wildcats, who got 44 combined points from post players Nick Richards, Nate Sestina and Kahlil Whitney.
“My fear was we’re not ready to go against a press,” Calipari said. “I like the fact that we rushed it up, we took easy baskets, we were the aggressor, even though they pressed. But, that was my worry.”
Richards played sparingly in the opener against the Spartans, but posted the second double-double of his career with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Sestina added 12 points and 11 rebounds. Richards added four blocks and missed just one field goal on 11 attempts from the floor.
“My team is finding an easy way for me to get baskets and I’m just trying to do my job in the defensive end and help with ball screens and get rebounds as much as possible,” Richards said.
Calipari said Richards is “so much better than a year ago” and is starting to play with more confidence.
“He was good today,” Calipari said. “He’s in the greatest shape he’s ever been in and he’s built his own confidence now. (It) doesn’t matter what I say now and it doesn’t matter what I say if you’re not in great shape, you’re not going to have confidence. He still has a ways to go but he’s way better.”
Sestina said having Richards in the post makes the Wildcats a better team and it showed against the Colonels.
“It’s obviously really, really hard to score on Nick,” Sestina said. “You’re driving to the hoop and he’s seven-foot and got a 40-inch vertical, it helps us out a lot.”
Six players tallied double-figures for the Wildcats, including a career-high 16 points by guard Immanuel Quickley. Kahlil Whitney, Ashton Hagans and Keion Brooks scored 11 points each.
Kentucky’s defense continued its impressive start, forcing 21 turnovers and scoring 28 points off this miscues.
Michael Moreno led the Colonels with a career-high 14 points. The former Scott County standout added five rebounds and knocked down four of his team’s eight shots from long range.
“It’s a totally different level of basketball, but being here prior to this and playing in the state tournament (last year), it wasn’t like a shell-shock to play in Rupp Arena for the first time (as a college player),” Moreno said of his college debut. “Being a Kentucky kid, it wasn’t like I was being in awe of being on the floor at Rupp.”
Kentucky forward EJ Montgomery didn’t play because of an undisclosed injury. Montgomery scored four points in Kentucky’s season-opener against the Spartans.
“It’s day-to-day,” Calipari said.
Gametracker: Evansville at Kentucky, Tuesday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.