Kentucky obscures memories of Saint Peter’s by opening 2023 March Madness with decisive win


GREENSBORO, N.C. – It has been 40 seconds since Kentucky last won an NCAA Tournament game. Is that starting to seem long? Man, there goes another 10 seconds. It really feels like they should have another W by now, doesn’t it?

It was 9:22 p.m. Friday when Oscar Tshiebwe grabbed his 25th rebound and the No. 6 seed Wildcats polished off No. 11 seed Providence in the East Region, 61-53, their first NCAA win since the 2019 Sweet 16 escape of Kelvin Sampson’s Houston Cougars. It became a thing on Twitter to make a point of this when the current edition of UK basketball appeared in early February to be wrecking their case for inclusion in March Madness 2023.

The drought was cited at roughly 1,400 days, a statement that excluded the adjacent fact that when the 2021 NCAA Tournament began, it had been 719 days since anyone had won an NCAA Tournament game. The pandemic, remember?

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This sort of thing is not easily ignored by college athletes, even if they’re disciplined about staying away from social media mentions from fans of their team and others.

“It’s really hard, obviously. You could see 100 positive things, and you see one negative thing and it could flip your whole mind,” Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin told the Sporting News. “So we try to just not look at the negative comments. We stay positive and stay within our team to stay in a positive mindset.”

Five weeks ago, the Cats went down to Georgia and lost their second consecutive game, their fifth in Southeastern Conference play and their ninth of the season. Multiple national columnists called for UK and coach John Calipari to “divorce”, because it seemed preposterous that he could be fired when owed somewhere between $30 and $40 million to buy out his “lifetime” contract.

They’ve lost just twice since, beating four NCAA Tournament teams and one in the actual NCAA Tournament.

Oh goodness, it’s been 49 minutes now, is that going to be a problem?

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“I thought we did a pretty good job as a team of blocking that out and coming together,” reserve guard C.J. Frederick told the Sporting News. “We knew we weren’t playing our best basketball, and we wanted to be better, because we knew what we were capable of. As a whole unit, we battled through a bunch of adversity as a team, and we’ve always battled back. We’ve always been committed to each other and this team.”

“I think it’s just the belief we all have in each other.”

Calipari was delighted his 90-year-old father, Vincent, was able to attend the game, his first in about five years because of COVID and other concerns. He did not see Kentucky play brilliantly in defeating Providence, shooting only 36.5 percent for the game, only 25 percent for the second half. But he saw a victory that silenced so many of Kentucky basketball’s critics, or at least forced them to conceive new material.

UK shooting specialist Antonio Reeves scored 22 points, including all five of his team’s 3-pointers, two of which came in the final 2:14 of the first half and stretched Kentucky’s lead to double digits. Toppin dominated his matchup, scoring 18 points and serving as one of the primary defenders in holding former Wildcats forward Bryce Hopkins – who transferred after his freshman season and made All-Big East with the Friars – to 7 points.

The defense was everything it needed to be, though, with only PC center Ed Croswell making more than half his shots from the field. Remove his 8-of-10 from the team’s performance, and the rest of the Friars shot 27 percent.

Calipari apparently spent the week trying to make his players feel relaxed and positive, trying to lighten the pressure endemic to Kentucky basketball, a weight that had burgeoned as a result of last year’s first-round loss as a No. 2 seed to 15 seed Saint Peter’s. That may have been as important as the game plan, which focuses on declining to allow Hopkins the freedom necessary to shred the UK D.

“It’s March Madness. Not a lot of teams and coaches can say they played in March Madness,” Toppin said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have fun with it, we’re going to fight and compete, and hopefully come out with a W.

“(Calipari)’s just been positive. He’s been goofing around with us, trying to stay positive and just keeping everybody in a positive mindset.”

Kentucky played again without reserve point guard Sahvir Wheeler, which led to starter Cason Wallace needing to play 39 minutes. He has played at least 37 minutes in five of his past six appearances, save only for a game against Vanderbilt in which he was injured after playing 20. Of the Wildcats’ seven core players, only guard Antonio Reeves and forward Chris Livingston have played in every game. The other five have missed a combined 23 games.

Frederick injured a rib and missed four games in February as a result. He acknowledged this season will end before the discomfort does. He’s going to play hurt as much as he can, as long as he can. He gave his team 7 minutes and an assist against Providence. Don’t think it didn’t help. Everyone who played had to feel a part of a victory that was so long in the making.

“In the years I’ve played, the first ones are always the toughest ones: just the nerves and the anxiety, and seeing the crowd,” Frederick said. “So when you get the first one under you, you can go into that second one. You have that environment already in your head. You know what it’s like. You know the rims. So it’s a much more loose feeling going into that second game.”

It’s been 80 minutes, though, since the Wildcats won an NCAA Tournament game.

How will they sleep?