Despite a final score of 95-72 in favor of No. 10 ranked University of Kentucky, the Panthers were able to walk away with their heads held high and plenty of experience after a strong performance at Rupp Arena.
Junior Keion Brooks kickstarted things for the Wildcats to open up play, knocking down his first three of the night to put them on the board.
He earned a steal and a dunk on the ensuing possession, before hitting another three minutes later. Brooks had eight points on 3-5 shooting, with 2-4 coming from beyond the arc to open the game, as Kentucky led 10-5 with 15:52 left to play in the first half.
Senior guard Wyatt Bataille got off to a good start for the Panthers grabbing five of the team’s first seven, Kentucky started picking up steam as they approached the10-minute mark in the first half.
The dribble-drive offense was in full effect, as the Wildcats were finding open looks and getting out in transition to take a 23-9 lead with 10:59 left in the first half.
The Wildcats were 9-18 overall from the floor and 3-11 from beyond the arc to this point, while holding the Panthers to 4-13 shooting.
Kentucky Wesleyan was able to pick up some steam minutes later, getting a layup and a three to cut it 23-14 and force a Wildcats’ timeout.
However, the Wildcats exploded following the timeout, going on a 9-0 run that put them up 32-14 with 7:42 left in the first half.
Down 35-14 after Brooks’ third three of the first half, Kentucky Wesleyan was able to make up some ground with a 9-0 run thanks to strong shooting and a charge on the defensive end.
During their 9-0 run the Panthers held Kentucky scoreless for three minutes. They did a good job all night of taking charges and closing out quickly, something that will be crucial throughout the season.
Despite these valiant efforts on both ends, they weren’t able to keep the Wildcats out of the paint—losing that battle 24-8 in the first half—as Kentucky shot 59% from the field to head into the locker room up 48-30 on Kentucky Wesleyan.
Coming out of the locker room the Panthers offense was much smoother, moving the ball well as they were more aggressive in attacking the rim.
While they weren’t able cut its deficit much, Kentucky Wesleyan found themselves down 62-40 at the 12-minute mark having held the Wildcats to 1-6 shooting from beyond the arc, while only turning the ball over twice as opposed to its eight first-half turnovers.
Guard play was something Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari credited the Panthers for, saying that they did a good job of keeping the Wildcats on their toes defensively.
“Their guards were quick,” Calipari said. “We had to fight to stay in front. I thought we did a fairly good job. I would imagine a couple of their guards said, ‘I was surprised they could stay in front of me because they’re quick.’ They only turned it over 12 times. We were pressing them, trying to wear them down. Didn’t wear them down. Wore us down, I think.”
Kentucky was able to get some production from its guards in the second half as well, with freshman TyTy Washington pouring in 12 for the in the second half on 5-6 shooting from the field and 2-2 from three in the half to put the Wildcats up 77-47 with 7:46 left to play.
Junior Sahvir Wheeler and graduate student Davion Mintz also had solid second halves, pairing up for 15 points on 5-8 shooting combined from the floor
While the Panthers had a solid half offensively, a team as athletic as Kentucky paired with solid three-point shooting was too much to overcome, as they fell 95-72.
In a game where the Wildcats continued to make tough shots and thwart Kentucky Wesleyan’s best efforts, Head Coach Drew Cooper was pleased with the fight and focus they showed throughout the entirety of the game.
“It tests your spirit because it would be very easy for a team with little personality to go up and down with them for a few minutes and get so frustrated and it takes you completely out of your game,” Cooper said. “We hung in there for 40 minutes. Our best stint was around the four-minute mark, and that’s indicative of a team that was tested physically and spiritually and put that behind them and responded, and I’m very proud of our guys for doing that.”
Junior Jomel Boyd led all scorers on the night, finishing with 29 points on 12-17 shooting from the field, including 2-2 from deep to go along with eight rebounds.
Boyd said that his mindset coming in to treat the Wildcats like any other game was what really helped him offensively along with his teammates and coaches putting him in a good position to score.
“When I first heard that we were playing the University of Kentucky, my first thought was that they are just like us and that we needed to come out here and compete,” Boyd said. “It wasn’t just 29 points – it was a team effort. I credit my teammates for finding me and thanking the coach for seeing that and we just kept it rolling with that.”
Fifth-year guard Jamil Wilson also finished in double figures off the bench, craftily finding his way to the rim time and time again to finish with 15 points on 7-10 shooting from the field while hitting one from deep.
These performances along with help from their fellow Panthers helped them get out to a 56% clip from the field as a team in the second half.
It truly was a team effort offensively and Cooper said it was players like Boyd and Wilson leading by example that helped them be so efficient offensively.
“It took a few of our upperclassmen stepping in there and making some plays with a tremendous amount of toughness and the rest of our roster followed suit,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t any amount of strategy that took our field goal percentage from what it was in the first part of the game to the second part of the game, it was really just a team that got a little bit more comfortable and felt like they could do this play. That was good to see, and it was a good response from them.”
The defensive end was a much more difficult task as Kentucky finished the game with four players in double figures including Brooks (18), Washington (18), Mintz (12), junior Oscar Tshiebwe (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Wheeler (10).
This led to a 53% clip from the Wildcats on the night. Cooper said that he felt his team’s effort physically was very good.
He went on saying continuous effort—not standing and resting—is a point of emphasis for the Panthers and there was no part of the game where they didn’t compete and contest every shot despite the stat-sheet suggesting differently.
“That was what was so frustrating about the night – every offensive possession for them, every shot that went up, it was really the right shot,” Cooper said. “It was in rhythm. It was off ball reversals. It was off of one more pass. It was at the rim. I didn’t detect anybody on UK’s roster that was out there with an agenda other than getting the best shot, and that was very frustrating to us.”
While the final result wasn’t what the Panthers would’ve liked, they know they came in and put together a strong game against one of the best teams in the country.
Wilson said that Kentucky Wesleyan can take the experience of playing the Wildcats under the limelight in Rupp Arena and use it to grow as the season progresses.
“I was blessed to play here a couple of times in high school,” Wilson said. “I think it was a good learning experience that we’ll take moving forward and showed that we can compete with anybody. Going back to our conference, it’ll give us a lot more confidence now.”
The matchup is clearly a huge positive for the Panthers, but even Calipari was pleased to host the Panthers and have both teams be able to walk away with positives from the game.
Calipari said that he told Cooper that the Panthers bullied the Wildcats at times and that they came out and made them work each and every play for 40 minutes.
“When we play an exhibition, we got to get something out of it,” Calipari said. “Most of it is I got to learn about my team. I learned today. There’s some glaring issues that we got to deal with. But I saw it. If we didn’t play a team that would battle us, we would never know. You get into your season and you’re like, ‘Geez, we’re not like we thought.’ Today we learned. I’m hoping it helps them, their pride, their confidence in what they could do this year.
While it was a very challenging matchup taking on a veteran-led Kentucky team with ample talent, Cooper was thrilled with his team’s fight for all 40 minutes.
“They’re very talented and it was tough for us, but I’m happy with our effort,” Cooper said. “We’re thrilled that UK had us down. It’s monumental to our community and to the city of Owensboro, so this game meant quite a deal to our school of 750 people. We thought we represented well, so we’re very appreciative to the University of Kentucky for having us.”
With a valuable learning experience under their belt, the Panthers now turn their attention to the University of Evansville on Thursday, Nov. 4, at 6 p.m. for one last exhibition game before opening regular season play.