By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — The rehearsal is over. The real show begins Tuesday on the big stage in the Big Apple.
Second-ranked Kentucky closed out the exhibition schedule with an easy 83-51 win over Kentucky State Friday night and now turns its attention to top-ranked Michigan State. The two teams will tangle in the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York City in a star-studded event that also features No. 3 Kansas and fourth-ranked Duke.
Although a highly-anticipated opener, Kentucky is taking a low-key approach to the showdown.
“We’ll learn from whatever happens (Tuesday),” Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne said. “If we win the game, we learn from our mistakes. If we lose the game, we’re not devastated by that. This is a process of teaching young players winning basketball. Last time, time I checked, you don’t win that championship in November. All of these are learning moments for these players.”
A 118-84 blowout loss to Duke certainly was a learning experience for the Wildcats to open the season last year. Despite the embarrassing showing Indianapolis, the Wildcats rebounded and reached the Elite Eight before falling to Southeastern Conference foe Auburn in the regional semifinals.
Payne recalled last year’s setback to the Blue Devils and said the contest served as an early wake-up call for Kentucky.
“We learned that you had better take this really serious and we learned that you have a target on your back and you better know when you step on that court, you better go to war and fight for everything get, because the other team is coming after you,” he said.
Kentucky returns several players from last year’s squad that were part of last year’s meltdown in Indianapolis, including guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley and post players EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards.
“It’s vital to have veteran guys that have been in the program that can tell younger guys exactly what to do,” Payne said. “It’s not just basketball. A lot of times kids play high school ball and AAU ball and they think it’s just basketball. This is a fight, this is a war — a war on you character, a war on your person, a war on our program and a war on college basketball. Are we going to win that war or are we going to lose it? Those guys have been through it. They’ve seen it.”
Richards sat out the exhibition against the Thorobreds after suffering an apparent sprained ankle in the team’s 80-53 win over Georgetown College last Sunday. Richards was sporting a boot on his left foot and is listed as day-to-day.
Quickley led the Wildcats with 17 points to lead three players in double figures against Kentucky State. Kahlil Whitney, who failed to score in the exhibition opener, finished with 15 points and added five rebounds. Nate Sestina made six shots on eight attempts and finished with 13 points and a eight rebounds. Hagans had seven points and nine assists, while Keion Brooks grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
Whitney’s improvement from the first exhibition game was largely because of his renewed confidence.
“I had to get back into the gym and get that stroke back,” he said. “Other than that, it was (all about) playing hard at all times. I took a lot of plays off the first game and I just can’t do that. With my type of athleticism, I have to keep foot on the gas at all times.”
Kentucky, which got out rebounded by Georgetown College in the exhibition opener, controlled the boards 43-33 and collected 34 defensive rebounds. The Wildcats forced 22 turnovers and scored 30 points off those miscues.
“I think anytime you talk the floor early in the season, you want to see where your team is,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said. “I think for our guys, you saw a little bit better fight and we talked about that after the Georgetown game. Getting outrebounded, this is a game where we focused all week, coming back and playing with a little bit more aggression and playing with a little bit more fight on both ends of the floor, especially once the ball was shot, and offensively and defensively, we played with a little more physicality. I think you saw some of that out of some guys tonight, which is good.”
KENTUCKY (83) — Whitney 15, Quickley 17, Brooks 9, Hagans 7, Sestina 13, Maxey 7, Juzang 9, Montgomery 6.
KENTUCKY STATE (51) — Fisher 1, Howard 5, Moore 5, Wilson 2, Fikes 8, Athie 10, Wharton-Price 6, Goode 10, Drynan 1, Lewis 3
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Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Michigan State, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.