Kentucky gets career night from Tshiebwe, turns away Providence in NCAA first round
Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe hauled in 25 boards in Friday night's win over Providence. (Photo: Kentucky Athletics)
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Big Blue Nation rolls deep.
Anyone who knows about Kentucky is well aware of the passion of its fan base. Despite a cold shooting night, a tricky opponent in Providence – and, admittedly, some distractions from the massive upset by Fairleigh Dickinson on the video board during some pivotal late moments – the Blue helped pull its beloved Wildcats through Friday night in first-round NCAA tournament action.
Sixth-seeded Kentucky got 25 rebounds from star post player Oscar Tshiebwe and stifled the Friars in the second half, holding them to 29.6 percent (8-for-27), claiming a 61-53 victory over 11th-seeded Providence in Greensboro Coliseum.
“Our fans travel. We've got great fans,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said..”Now, they're engaged and, you know, they live and die with wins and losses. You have some of them that are out there a little bit, but we've got the greatest fans. They travel. They're excited. I've got a stack of letters this year like this when we struggled to hang in, and some of them were unbelievable. I hand-wrote notes to every one of them because that's our fans.”
As for the on-court festivities, the Wildcats carried a lighter mood, even with everything surrounding them.
“I said it yesterday, we’re just living in the moment,” Wildcat Jacob Toppin said. “That's what we did, and we played possession by possession and came out with a W.”
Calipari struck a similar note.
“This should be enjoyed,” Calipari said. “Coaches don't get here. Players don't get here. I want them to enjoy each other and to enjoy this.”
Kentucky (22-11) enjoyed a strong first half, tickling twine with 45.7 percent (16-for-35) of their shots in the opening stanza. The Wildcats grabbed a seven-point lead at the break, buoyed strongly by a 25-13 advantage on the boards. Kentucky seized 13 of its 19 misses in the period, affording itself a 12-2 advantage in second-chance points. Tshiebwe snagged 13 caroms himself.
“Well, he has had ability,” Calipari said. “People want to forget that he had a knee operation and was out four weeks to start the season and should have been out two more. He forced his way back. ‘I want to play. I'm good. I can do this.’ Should have been out two more weeks. And it's been in the last, I'm going to say, month that he has gotten back to where he was. Now he is going beyond, but, no, he impacts the game.
“The other thing is how about you have a guy that will go fight and go get all those rebounds. If he doesn't get the ball, he may come over to me in a time-out and say, Coach, may tell him to throw it to me. That's the extent. He is not saying anything. What's better than playing with a guy like that who will do all the dirty work, do everything, and all he wants is every once in a while, please throw me the ball.”
“At the end of the day the game was won on the backboard,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “When you look at that, game, set and match. Plus 17 on the glass, 18 offensive rebounds. That's the game right there. Take everything out, you limit them to one shot. You know, five or six of those, it's a different game. They made the plays they had to make to win the game.”
The second half told a different story than the first.
Providence (21-12) continued to battle, chopping the lead as thin as three on multiple occasions. Every Friar rally in the second half, however, seemed to be thwarted by the Wildcat defense, the Providence shooting struggles, or both. The Friars struggled to put together runs on the offensive end or strings of stops on defense, hampering the club’s comeback effort. Along with the significant rebounding edge, PC mustered just 29.6 percent (8-for-27) from the floor in the second 20, knocking down only two of 15 tries from distance.
“We just couldn't overcome our lack of offense,” Cooley said. “I thought their length was somewhat bothersome around the rim, but I thought we had open shots we made all year. This may have been the lowest point production we had all year as well.”
Tshiebwe also proved difficult to overcome. The Kentucky standout recorded the first 25-board performance in the NCAA tournament since 1970.
“It’s not the first time he had 20-plus rebounds in a game,” Cooley said. “He is elite. He was the National Player of the Year for a reason, and his defensive and offensive rebounding was probably the number one reason why he was awarded that last year. He is very quick to the ball. He has a knack for the ball.
“Sometimes you just have an "it," ala Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace. Those guys just have an "it" for it. Some guys have an "it" to score. Some people have an "it" to pass. He has an incredible "it," an elite "it" to rebound. I think the players did a great job trying to prepare for it. You know, he is quick. He is long. He is athletic. You know, credit him. It's not like we were out there not trying, so I think it's double the credit to him.”
Antonio Reeves guided Kentucky with a 22-point effort. Reeves hit 8-of-18 from the floor and 5-of-9 from three on the night. Toppin added 18, converting 6-of-14. Tshiebwe tallied eight to go along with his monster rebound total. Kentucky shot 36.5 percent (23-for-63) on the night, despite just a 25 percent effort (7-for-28) in the closing stanza. The Wildcats hit 5-of-16 (31.3 percent) from distance and 76.9 percent (10-of-13) from the stripe.
Ed Croswell poured in 16 for the Friars, putting home 8-of-10 from the field. Devin Carter added 10, but hit just 4-of-14 on the night. Providence hit 36.2 percent (21-for-58) of its attempts, sticking just 20.8 percent (5-for-24) from beyond the arc. PC also struggled a bit at the line, converting just 6-of-11 (54.5 percent).
Kentucky advances to Sunday’s late second-round game and will square off against the winner of third-seeded Kansas State and 14th-seeded Montana State. Game time and network coverage will be announced later Friday.