With Kentucky already playing without PJ Washington, the Big Blue Nation probably held its collective breath late in Thursday night’s 79-44 romp over Abilene Christian in the first-round game of the NCAA Tournament.
With 1:56 to go in a game decided shortly after the opening tip, Nick Richards got undercut as he went up for an offensive rebound. He hit the court on his left side and stayed down.
“All I heard was that whole entire minute was ‘Oooh,’” Richards said. “That’s all I heard. I didn’t hear the impact (of the fall). I just heard the whole entire arena.”
EJ Montgomery, who started in place of Washington, admitted he was alarmed.
It was definitely a scary moment,” he said.
UK Coach John Calipari, who was iffy at best about Washington playing in Saturday’s second round, acknowledged his concern in seeing Richards go down. He said he tried the power of suggestion and positive thinking on the third UK “big” to go down in the last five weeks. Reid Travis sprained a knee at Missouri Feb. 19, then Washington sprained a foot last weekend.
“That’s why I said, ‘move your arm around,’” Calipari said he told Richards. “He did. ‘You’re all right. Rub some dirt in it. Let’s get going. Let’s go.’
“But, yeah, we’re down to seven, eight guys. And it makes it hard.”
The victory over Abilene Christian did not look hard. It resembled one of college basketball’s so-called “guarantee games” of November and December when the upper crust is assured of victories in glorified workouts.
Kentucky proved such games can happen in the NCAA Tournament’s first round even with its leading scorer and rebounder and go-to guy sitting on the bench with his left foot in a hard cast.
“I’ve been playing with him for two years,” Richards said of Washington. “It was a strange thing not to see him on the court.”
In explaining Washington’s chances of returning to action, Calipari said, “The cast will speed up the healing, so we said, put the cast on. Whether they take it off tomorrow to check it, I don’t know. If they don’t, he won’t play Saturday.
“And then they’ll probably try to take it off Tuesday or Wednesday of next week to see how his foot feels.”
The rout of Abilene Christian came by the second-largest margin of victory for Kentucky in a NCAA Tournament in Calipari’s 10 seasons as coach. The Cats beat West Virginia 78-39 in the 2015 Sweet 16 round. It also matched UK’s biggest rout since a 90-44 beating of Monmouth on Nov. 28. The Cats blitzed Vanderbilt 87-52 on Jan. 29.
Kentucky (28-6) advanced to Saturday’s second round against the winner of Thursday’s late game between Wofford and Seton Hall.
Abilene Christian, which was playing in its first NCAA Tournament game, finished the season with a 27-7 record.
The first half made clear this was a game between the seventh overall seed (Kentucky) and the 62nd (Abilene Christian) in this NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky led 39-13 at halftime. That marked the season’s second-largest halftime lead, eclipsed only by the 45-15 avalanche that buried Vanderbilt on Jan. 29.
Incidentally, Abilene Christian came into the NCAA Tournament with a NCAA Evaluation Rating (NET) of 154, which was one spot better than Vandy.
Keldon Johnson led Kentucky with 25 points. Travis added 18. Montgomery chipped in three points and 11 rebounds, the latter his second-highest total of the season (he grabbed 13 against South Carolina).
Several first-half statistics reflected the one-sided nature of the competition. Abilene Christian, which came into the game ranked 40th nationally in shooting accuracy (47.4 percent), made only five of 26 shots. Kentucky outscored its outmatched opponent 26-6 in the paint.
For the game, Kentucky outrebounded Abilene Christian 44-17. The Cats enjoyed a 40-20 advantage in points from the paint. Abilene Christian’s 32.1-percent shooting was the fifth-worst by a Kentucky opponent this season.
It was quickly apparent that you wouldn’t need any of Ken Pomeroy’s number crunching to know Kentucky would win in a breeze. The Cats scored the game’s first eight points and led 17-3 with 12:42 left. At that point, Abilene Christian Coach Joe Golding called his second timeout presumably in hopes of slowing the onslaught.
Kentucky scored the half’s final 13 points, held Abilene Christian without a basket in the final 5:48 and did not even bother to heave up a last shot after the opponent missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3.9 seconds left.
Despite Kentucky’s dominance, the half gave the ever-fretful among UK fans cause for concern. UK’s short-handed contingent of “bigs” got in foul trouble.
Richards, who relieved starter Montgomery at the 15:39 mark, picked up two fouls in less than two minutes. Richards got a third foul with 3:43 left.
“I put it all on myself,” Richards said of getting in foul trouble. “I just did the little dumb stuff. I’ve just got to get over those little things.”
Travis went to the bench with a second foul at 6:21.
These fouls did not threaten Kentucky against Abilene Christian. But they figured to be more problematic as the competition gets tougher.
Early in the second half, Kentucky’s lead grew to a Vandy-esque 46-19.
The remaining 16 minutes were a test to see if Kentucky would “play to our training,” as Ashton Hagans said on Wednesday, or succumb to any temptation to punctuate the game with style points.
“I think we stayed pretty focused throughout the whole game,” Johnson said. “We just continued to have fun.”