(Photo courtesy UK Athletics)
If there was one thing Kentucky needed to do after the season-opening loss to Duke, it was rebound. As in, bounce back.
Oscar Thiebwe took it literally.
In his bid to capture every carom that touched a Rupp Arena backboard in UK’s 100-60 victory Friday night, Tshiebwe snatched 20 rebounds, matching his record-setting number from Tuesday’s effort against the Blue Devils.
Twenty, you say? Matching? At the end of the game in Madison Square Garden, the stat sheet said, “19.” Ah, but a re-scan of game video proved that the West Virginia transfer, here by way of The Congo, actually did reach the coveted 20 mark, giving him a new Champions Classic record.
It was also a new high mark for a UK player making his debut; the most by a Wildcat in the John Calipari era and the most by a Kentucky player since Jared Prickett snagged 20 against Arkansas on Feb. 9, 1994. (Six weeks later, those Razorbacks would go on to win the national championship.)
Then he did it against Friday.
“I get reprimanded by the coaches for my rebounding,” guard Kellan Grady told UK Radio’s Mike Pratt, “but I can’t get any because (Oscar) gets them all.”
Remember how fans hung “3” posters on the wall during the Pitino era, every time a Bombino connected from downtown? Calipari suggested hanging an “R” for every board his big guy grabs. Wanna bet against it?
“Everybody wants to do fancy, different things,” Tshiebwe said, “but for me, rebounding means a lot. Rebounding can help your team to win the game. You give one more chance to your team. Since I figured it out, if I have to fight, I have to work for the rebound, I’m going to fight for that rebound like no one believes.”
If there were any non-believers Friday night, he won them over.
Tshiebwe already had become the first Wildcat to score at least 17 points and 20 rebounds in a season opener since Dan Issel went for 29 points and 24 rebounds against Xavier on Nov. 30, 1968.
Two games into his initial season in Lexington and The Big O already is keeping pretty good company.
Tshiebwe also finished with 14 points and three blocked shots; rebound number 20 came after his third and final block; Calipari had inserted him back into the game to give him a shot at the magic number.
“If somebody shoots from deep, I know 75 percent might go one way, 25 percent might come back a different way,” Tshiebwe said. “So I have to position myself in the 75 percent, because I know if you miss, it’s probably going to go that way. And I’ll get it.“
Rebounding wasn’t the only thing that brought 18,454 fans in Rupp Arena to full throat. Freshman Damion Collins, barely a blip on the radar screen against Duke, had an impressive regular-season Rupp Arena debut, scoring 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting – which might be a misnomer; slam dunks technically are “shots” but there’s no separate column on the stat sheet to indicate which bucket was a jumper and which was a rim-rattler.
“He needs to play,” Calipari said. “Can I petition to see if I can add minutes to the game? I’m trying to get it to an extra eight a quarter. I don’t think they’re going to go for that.”
If “they” do, it’s likely we’ll see more plays like the one with a little more than two minutes to go, Sahvir Wheeler leading the break, penetrating and then dishing to Collins, flying through the paint, for a savage tomahawk slam.
“I mean I just run the floor,” Collins said. “My teammates see me, and it’s just me and the rim.”
Wheeler was so excited by the dunk that he pushed Collins so hard he nearly knocked him over. His pass was one of 12 dimes he dropped on his teammates and never committed a turnover. Zero. Zilch. Nada. No turns in a game that saw the Wildcats flying up and down the court as much as they could against the outmanned Colonials.
Grady scored the first bucket of the night, a pure three-pointer from the corner, which turned out to be a preview of the Wildcats’ sharp-shooting prowess.
Grady, who nailed his first three against Duke before the Blue Devils shaded their defense toward the Davidson transfer, found ample room to shoot against RMU, bagging 4-of-6 from the arc and totaling 19 points.
Davion Mintz did him slightly better, hitting 4-of-5 and Dontae Allen, who didn’t get off the bench Tuesday, took advantage of his 10 minutes by nailing 2-of-4 triples and added a pair of blocked shots.
Nobody will confuse Robert Morris with a Top 10 program. The Colonials, from the same Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, Pennsylvania that produced one J. Calipari, were picked to finish in the bottom third of the Horizon Conference, well behind the likes of Northern Kentucky and the projected champion, Wright State.
The visitors never led and managed to keep the game tied for all of 17 seconds. What they were, was cannon fodder for a team that needed to bounce back and feel good about itself, after a disappointing performance in the Big Apple, with the entire college basketball-loving nation looking on.
Fair to say, Kentucky – and its rebounding machine, named Oscar – rebounded quite nicely.