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Lexington, KY 1-3-23

Kentucky returned to the Rupp Arena court to nail down their first SEC win of the season in the home opener versus the LSU Tigers Tuesday night by a score of 74-71. The ‘Cats (10-4) entered the game coming off a big win over the lowly Louisville Cardinals last Saturday (86-63). The ‘Cats checked into the game ranked just No. 41 in the country in the latest NET rankings (Kentucky 0-3 in Quad 1 matchups). The LSU Tigers (12-2) entered the game with a sparkling 12-1 record on the season but were ranked just No. 75 nationally in the NET rankings thanks to a very weak strength of schedule with just 4 of their 13 games coming against Quad 1, 2, or 3 squads (9-0 versus Quad 4).  The Tigers new head coach is previous Murray State head coach, Matt McMahon. McMahon accumulated a 154-67 record at Murray State over the course of seven seasons. The Tigers leading contributor, KJ Williams (Murray State transfer), found his way to Baton Rouge with his head coach and has posted 18.5 PPG and 8.0 RPG this season. Adam Miller (Illinois transfer) is second on the team in scoring with 13.0 PPG. The leading ‘Cats contributors are Tshiebwe (16.5 PPG, 13.6 RPG) and Wallace (12.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.9 APG) with Toppin (24-points versus Louisville) consistently being the X-factor for this ‘Cats team. Another key to the game besides Toppin was developing an offensive rhythm (Calipari shortening the rotations) through efficient offense. Lance Ware was inactive for the game on Tuesday night.

The starting lineup for the ‘Cats featured Wheeler, Wallace, Livingston, Toppin, and Tshiebwe.

The scoring started with a three-pointer at the top of the key by Livingston to give the ‘Cats an early 3-0 lead. The Tigers quickly responded with a three of their own on the other end. After a missed three by the Tigers, Wheeler found Wallace in transition for a breakaway slam. After an open layup by Tshiebwe, the ‘Cats took a 9-5 lead into the first media timeout. A couple threes by the Tigers tied the game at 11 before Wallace hit a long two to push the ‘Cats ahead 13-11. Another runout by the ‘Cats, started by Wheeler and finished off by a Tshiebwe slam left the ‘Cats in front by a score of 15-14. The Tigers responded with an and-one opportunity, leaving the score at 16-15 LSU at the under 12-minute timeout. A Wheeler three pushed the ‘Cats in front again after the Tigers hit their free-throw. A Tshiebwe free-throw after a Collins putback slam put Kentucky up 23-21. A dish underneath by Wallace to Tshiebwe for an open slam left the score at 25-21 ‘Cats at the under 8-minute media timeout. A lazy pass from Wallace intended for Tshiebwe 35-feet from the basket got stolen and resulted in a Tigers transition slam. Wheeler responded with an open three to push the lead to 30-23 Kentucky. Wallace then responded to a Tigers three with a trey of his own. The Tigers continued their hot offensive stretch for a few more possessions and narrowed the lead to 36-33 with a free-throw ensuing with 2:39 to play in the half. An LSU jumper a few steps in from the three-point line brought the score to 40-36 Kentucky with 40-seconds left in the half. Both teams converted their offensive chances to end the half to leave the score at 42-38 ‘Cats at halftime. The ‘Cats shot a very solid 57% from the field in the half and 50% from three-point range. The ‘Cats also dominated the boards in the half, winning the battle 16-8. Tshiebwe collected 12 points and 8 rebounds in the half while Wheeler mixed in a healthy 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Williams led the way for the Tigers with 13 first half points.

The second half began with a Williams three for LSU to bring the score to 42-41 ‘Cats. A Wallace rhythm three followed by an acrobatic Toppin layup pushed the ‘Cats lead to 49-41. The score at the first media timeout was 51-46 ‘Cats. A flurry of ‘Cats buckets, featuring two Tshiebwe free-throws, a Toppin floater, and a Tshiebwe and-one chance pushed the ‘Cats in front by 10, 58-48 Kentucky. An alley-oop look from beyond the three-point line from Wallace found Toppin for the slam that brought the score to 60-50 ‘Cats with 10:40 left to play in the game. The score at the under 8-minute media timeout was 60-53 ‘Cats. An 8-0 run by the Tigers, featuring a banked in three-pointer by Williams narrowed the ‘Cats lead to 60-58 with 6:18 remaining. A Wheeler to Toppin alley-oop out of the timeout pushed the score to 62-58 Kentucky. Another Toppin mid-range floater rolls in, but the Tigers nailed their tenth three of the game to bring the score to 64-61 ‘Cats with 4:36 to play. A Wheeler banked three extended the ‘Cats lead to 6, 67-61 at the under 4-minute media timeout. A Tigers three brought the score to 67-64 with 3-minutes left in the game. After the Tigers got the lead down to 1, Toppin threw up a three pointer from the corner that fell to bring the score to 70-66 ‘Cats with just 1:13 remaining. Wallace beat his man off the dribble to hit a tough layup that brought the score to 72-68 with 30-seconds left. A foul from Livingston on a three-pointer gave the Tigers three free-throws that narrowed the lead down to 72-71 Kentucky with 10-seconds on the clock. Two H-U-G-E Toppin free-throws with 3.4-seconds remaining pushed the ‘Cats lead to 74-71. The Tigers called a timeout to draw up the last play of the game and their game-tying three-pointer was off the mark as the ‘Cats took home the win by a final score of 74-71.

The Tigers shot 49% from the field (44% from three off 11 made threes). The ‘Cats shot 52% from the field and 39% from three-point range. The ‘Cats won the rebounding battle by a count of 31-22. Toppin led the ‘Cats in scoring with 21-points (17 in the second half). Tshiebwe followed that up with 19-points and a game-high 16-rebounds. Wallace posted 14-points. Wheeler stuffed his stat sheet with 11-points, 6-rebounds, and 9-assists in the SEC home opener. Toppin and Reeves led the ‘Cats in plus/minus totals with +4 apiece.

The ’Cats (10-4, 1-1 SEC) will head to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 7 Alabama (12-2, 2-0 SEC) this Saturday, January 7. Tip is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.


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