Cats pull away in second half in season opener

Published 10:59 am Tuesday, November 7, 2023

By Keith Taylor

Kentucky Today

It took a while, but Kentucky pulled away from rebuilding New Mexico State on Monday night and rolled to an 86-46 win over the Aggies in the season opener for both teams at Rupp Arena.

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After struggling to find a rhythm in the opening 20 minutes, Kentucky used a big second half for the easy victory. Kentucky outscored New Mexico State 49-17 in the second half and tallied the last 17 points to close out the contest.

Kentucky (1-0) claimed its 100th victory to open the season and improved to 13-2, including a 13-0 mark in home openers, under John Calipari.

Calipari praised his team’s ability to play at a random pace in the second half and said it proved to be a difference in the outcome. The Kentucky coach said his squad simply “spaced the court and played off one another.”

“That’s random basketball … when you have five guys who can all pass, dribble and shoot, you can play random,” he said. “When you have two to three, you can’t. You’ve got to have five. We played random the whole second half. We ran two of three things and everything else was random.”

Six players made their official debut for the Wildcats, including reigning Kentucky Mr. Basketball Reed Sheppard.

Sheppard came off the bench and provided a spark for the Wildcats, especially in the first half. Sheppard’s first collegiate basket was a slam dunk on a fast break, and he scored six crucial points for the hosts to close out the opening frame. He finished with 12 points.

“It was awesome,” Sheppard said of his debut. “Putting on the jersey for the first time and running out (on the court) with my teammates, with the best fans in the nation hollering, it was really, really cool — something that I have dreamed of my whole life. Finally, being able to do it is a dream come true. It was unbelievable.”

Calipari also was impressed with Sheppard’s outing in the opener.

“Reed played great,” he said. “He did some good stuff…He was good today, really good.”

Rob Dillingham led Kentucky with 17 points, followed by D.J. Wagner with 13. Sheppard and Justin Edwards contributed with 12 points each.

Veterans Adou Thiero, Tre Mitchell and Antonio Reeves combined for 25 points, with Reeves leading the way with 11 points. Mitchell just missed a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds. He added five assists for the hosts.

Kentucky used its speed to wear down the Aggies. The Wildcats forced 18 turnovers, scored 24 points off those miscues and finished with 25 fast-break points.

“They’re an elite transition offensive team,” New Mexico State coach Jason Hooten said. “They can be a team you can be excited about at the end of the year…I think they’ve got a chance to be great.”

Kentucky was without its three post players, two of whom are recovering from injuries. Aaron Bradshaw is expected to return to the court in a couple of weeks, while returnee Ugonna Onyenso likely will require more time in rehab before making a return to the court. Zvonomir Ivisic is awaiting clearance from the NCAA regarding his eligibility.