(Photos courtesy UK Athletics)
All those people – fans, media, network talking heads, even coaches – who wondered where Kentucky would be without Oscar Tshiebwe and his barrel of rebounds each game found out Friday night. And they found out quickly.
The 77-59 final score in the Wildcats’ win over Ohio University in Rupp Arena tells only part of the story. Exactly half. That’s just about how long Tshiebwe sat out and it’s how long it took Kentucky to finally shake off the Bobcats.
Tshiebwe picked up two fouls in the first 66 seconds and headed for the bench. Ohio did what John Calipari expected it to do: Execute its offense, throw in three-pointers and make life tough on his team.
“That’s an NCAA tournament team,” he said after the game, repeating something he had said before. “This game was not a tune-up game. That’s an NCAA tournament team and they will win one or two games in NCAA tournament.”
Ah, tune-up games. It was the second topic Calipari brought up as he spoke to the fans who remained in Rupp Arena to hear him speak on the post-game radio show.
His first topic was noble. He urged season ticket-holders, if they decide not to attend, to share the love. “If you’re not coming, call a grade school, call the principal, if you want to reward a teacher. Go to the fire station.. go to the police station. Give away tickets that you’re not going to use.”
Amen to that, with a capital A. Now… about those alleged “tune-up games…”
“Look at these power five schools,” Calipari said. “Some of them play only tune-up games. There are some… who think we should be playing the Lakers, the Suns, every game. You need tune-up games, I’m here to tell you.”
But this, he insisted, was not. Ohio was a notch above. Kentucky had to play with its best front-liner on the bench almost instantly. And the Bobcats sizzled from the start, hitting eight of their first 12, draining each of their first three triples and racing off to a 20-12 early lead.
Then the bench got busy.
With Calipari subbing liberally, looking for an effective combination, Kentucky ate into the deficit. Damion Collins took a perfect lob from Sahvir Wheeler and turned it into an alley oop dunk; Bryce Hopkins drained a three; Dontaie Allen finished a fast break with a triple of his own and Davion Mintz got a runout layup that tied the game at 24.
Back and forth they went until the Wildcats eased out to a 40-38 halftime lead. You had to wonder if Kentucky’s managers needed to open the locker room door after intermission, or simply waited for Tshiebwe to run through it.
With their big man back, grabbing every rebound he could, the Wildcats amped up the pressure on defense, holding the Bobcats to 9-of-27 shooting (3-of-12 from distance) and a paltry six rebounds. For the game, UK whipped OU on the boards, 53-17, with Tshiebwe snatching 10, all after recess.
And in his absence, his teammates all pitched in. Keion Brooks dropped in 22 points, 12 in the Oscar-less first half. Brooks knocked down so many jumpers inside the arc, TyTy Washington dubbed him a “mid-range assassin.” Brooks’ success from two-point range and struggles beyond the arc (1-of-6) didn’t get past his coach.
“You shot 65 to 70 percent from two,” Calipari said. “Shoot those!” adding, “I thought he played great. He fought.”
In fact, the fight in his entire team is what impressed him the most, battling for nearly 20 solid minutes without the man who came into the game leading the nation in rebounding. But his teammates battled on.
“Without Bryce, we don’t win the game,” Calipari said.
Hopkins, with seven points and seven boards, helped keep them close in the first half, as did Washington, who (gasp!) actually out-rebounded Tshiebwe, with 11.
“I’m not machine. I’m TyTy!” Washington said, a spoof on the meme posted this week by Tshiebwe himself, who’d been compared to a rebounding machine more than once. “With Oscar not on the floor, you can see a lot of balls are going a lot of different places now. So, it was a lot of opportunity for me to get in there and rebound.”
And score. Washington finished with 20, as well as five assists, joining just Isaiah Briscoe and James Young as the only UK players under Calipari to put up at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a game.
The Wildcats took their first step toward answering some questions, not the least of which was, How will they perform when Oscar has to sit? Calipari had a question of his own for his Rupp Arena audience, not to mention his radio listeners.
“How do you like this team?” he asked. “I love this team. You see the fight. Isn’t that what you want to see? Let’s go to war. Let’s go battle.”
This may not have been a tune-up. Ohio U is a well-coached, veteran team that just might prove Calipari prescient when it comes to Selection Sunday. The Bobcats pushed Kentucky, which now can ready itself for even bigger battles. They’re on the way.