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Kentucky thwarts Utah State upset bid, rallies from halftime deficit for 73-63 victory

Jerry Tipton, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky accomplished at least two things in Friday's 73-63 victory over Utah Valley. The Cats got the 2017-18 season off to a successful start. And the Cats confirmed, at least for the time being, the suspicion that they will be a much better team in an up-tempo game.

Kentucky played a half-court game in the first half. It got out on the fast break in the second half.

The difference was startling.

Facing a set defense, UK trailed, 34-25, at halftime.

With its transition game engaged in the second half, Kentucky pulled away.

Kentucky was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of experience. The Cats started five freshmen. Utah Valley started three fifth-year seniors, a junior and a third-year sophomore.

At least for a half, this difference showed as Utah Valley got back on defense and forced Kentucky to try to display the kind of "winning basketball" that coach John Calipari said on Thursday would need to be developed over time.

Much to Kentucky's benefit, the second half bore little resemblance to the first.

Kentucky will play another veteran-laden team on Sunday in Vermont.

Utah Valley, which has been picked to finish third or fourth in the Western Athletic Conference, continues what it calls "the toughest 24 hours in college basketball history" by playing at Duke on Saturday night.

Hamidou Diallo led UK with 18 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 13 while Kevin Knox chipped in 12 and Nick Richards 10.

Diallo's dunk with 8:54 left in the first half capped a fast break begun when Utah Valley shot an airball. It was UK's only fast-break points of the first half.

For a freshman-laden team reliant on what Calipari called "random" play, especially early in the season, no fast breaks meant the Cats played against a set defense much of the half.

Coincidentally or not, Kentucky did not make another basket in the first half after Diallo's dunk. UK made six free throws in that span. In that time, UK's largest first-half lead (23-18) faded away in a Utah Valley 16-2 run into intermission.

The idea that Kentucky might struggle offensively probably crossed minds early. The Cats missed eight of their first 10 shots.

Quade Green came off the bench at the first TV time. His presence seemed to bring a semblance of rhythm to UK's offense. The Cats got Nick Richards established in the low post early then either forgot about him or looked elsewhere for points.

But the Cats made only 7 of 32 shots. Getting outrebounded 25-16 contributed to Kentucky only scoring two second-chance points.

Defense enabled Kentucky to stay within striking distance. Utah Valley made only 12 of 30 shots. UK defended the rim, blocking six shots.

Kentucky got its fast break unleashed early in the second half. Its impact was dramatic and obvious as a high-flying dunk.

The second half could hardly have started more poorly for UK. The Cats' first two shots were blocked. Then Utah Valley cashed in a backdoor cut into a three-point play. Kentucky looked like freshmen. More importantly, UK trailed 37-25.

Then Knox made a 3-pointer from the left side against a set defense.

That relaxed UK. Or more likely a flurry of Utah Valley turnovers that UK converted into scores smoothed out the rough spots.

Fast-break dunks by Knox and Diallo followed the 3-pointer. That meant seven points in 37 seconds propelled UK on an 18-0 run that built a 43-37 lead with 15:32 left.

A fast-break layup by PJ Washington gave Kentucky its largest lead yet, 53-44, with 9:04 left. That layup gave UK 12 fast-break points in the first 11 minutes of the second half.

(c)2017 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com

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