By LARRY VAUGHT
No PJ Washington, no problem — at least for one game.
Kentucky dominated from the start to beat Abilene Christian 79-44 in its NCAA Tournament opening game in Jacksonville Thursday night.
Washington, UK’s leading scorer and rebounder, missed the game with a foot injury and watched from the bench with his left foot in a cast. But UK had more than enough firepower to dominate.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said “desperate” teams can do strange things in March.
“If you let a team hang around, you never know,” Calipari said. “We got out of the gate really guarding and we shot a high percentage.”
Kentucky got on top early behind 12 points from Reid Travis to take a 26-10 lead and had dominated points in the paint 20-2 at that stage. The lead was 39-13 at halftime — the lowest point total UK had ever allowed in one half in NCAA play — thanks to an 11-0 UK run in three minutes when it hit five straight shots. Abilene Christian missed 10 of its final 11 shots and 21 of 26 shots in the half
Keldon Johnson had a game-high 25 points — his seventh 20-point game of the season — and was 10 of 16 from the field. He also pulled off six rebounds to help UK dominate the boards.
“Coach Cal is going to stay on us regardless of the score,” Johnson said when asked about why UK put the game away so easily.
Travis finished with 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting and nine rebounds.
“It felt good. I have waited a long time for this,” Travis said after playing in his first NCAA game. “Obviously it’s tough not having PJ with us. We play off each other well. Unfortunately he’s out and happy to have him back when he’s healthy.”
Tyler Herro went 7-for-12 from the field and had 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. The Cats also got a combined 11 points and 15 rebounds from Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery.
Abilene Christian simply could not score inside against UK or rebound with the Cats as UK’s length dominated the game even without Washington. Kentucky won the rebounding battle 44-17 and had 40 points in the paint.
“We are a team that tries to get you to drive because we can block shots,” Calipari said. “We thought we had an advantage mainly because of our size and Reid’s strength. We said if going to beat these guys our rebounding, we have to separate from them and we did it.”