NCAA First Round: No. 2 UK vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky Game Breakdown

Anthony Crawford

INDIANAPOLIS — While the storyline surrounding the Northern Kentucky Norse in making their first NCAA Tournament the first year they were eligible for the postseason was great, it’ll be a short-lived one thanks to UK men’s basketball after the 79-70 victory for the Cats over the in-state school. 

Neither team shot well from the field and both teams settled for a lot of outside shots, shooting a combined 49 threes and only making 11 of them. De’Aaron Fox was the high-point man for UK, after tallying 19 points and three assists in his first time playing in the Big Dance. NKU was led by last year’s Kentucky Mr. Basketball, Carson Williams, who led the Norse with 21 points and nine rebounds.

The Cats fell victim to a scoreless drought midway through the first half, but bounced back to go into halftime with a 38-24 lead with the game well in hand.

Isaiah Briscoe helped UK get started in the second half, scoring the team’s first six points off back-to-back and-ones. He finished with 17 points in the game.

NKU did well to hang around and ended up outscoring UK in the second half 46-41. Thanks to another big scoring drought from UK in the second half, the Norse cut UK’s lead down to nine points with 54.8 seconds left to play, but UK hung on to win 79-70.

With the NCAA First Round win, UK advances to play Wichita State in the second round on Sunday. The Shockers played the game prior to the UK/NKU contest and advanced after beating Dayton 64-58.

MVP: Bam Adebayo

The biggest compliment freshman forward Bam Adebayo received from his teammates during the media opportunities this past week, was just how well he has handled the criticism he’s received throughout this season. No matter what had been asked of him, he simply listened and did his best to produce the anticipated results and they are starting to show through now.

Adebayo turned in a double-double with 15 points and 18 rebounds against NKU on Friday, and played a big part in what UK focused on doing throughout the game. While Calipari urged his guards to drive inside, Adebayo was the team’s safety net, ready to collect and put back any misses.

Adebayo had great success in the role against NKU with six of his rebounds coming on the offensive glass and UK as a team totaling 14 second chance points.

Game Defining Moment: 13-0 run by UK in the first half after 4:37 scoreless stretch

After jumping out in front to start the game UK started to go away from what was working for them and fell behind as a result. The Cats starting the game having success driving the ball, but then started falling too in love with the outside shot. This led to UK going scoreless for over four minutes and NKU going on a 7-0 run to make it a close game with UK only up 23-21.

The scoring drought was finally stopped for UK by De’Aaron Fox after he hit a pull-up jumper. He followed that up with a dunk inside and then an and-one that he failed to complete at the free throw line. Between Fox’s personal 6-0 run and the rest of the team getting back on track, UK was able to muster up a 13-0 run in response and hold the Norse scoreless for over four minute to regain control of the game. Overall UK went on a 15-3 run, allowing only one field goal from the Norse in the last six minutes of the first half.                                           

Trending Up: Derek Willis’ rim protection

John Calipari joked on Media Day Thursday that the reason behind senior Derek Willis’ recent surge isn’t that hard to find, pointing to his engagement on senior night being the main factor. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying his improvement on the defensive end and what he now gives this team in terms of shot-blocking.

Against NKU, Willis rejected three shots while also scoring eight points and pulling down seven rebounds. His shot has still been inconsistent but it’s hard to take him off the court when he’s become such a deterrent at the rim. With his three blocks Friday, he has had multiple block games in five of UK’s last six games.