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Kentucky defeated New Mexico State 86-46 in the first game of the 2023-24 basketball season in Rupp Arena on Monday night. The game served as the first game the new-look ‘Cats played together in a competitive game outside of exhibition games. Regular season games bring a different feel than pre-season games. The ‘Cats got off to a slow start in the first half but ramped up in the second half in rout to a big 40-point win. The Kentucky guards led the surge for the ‘Cats with contributions from Wagner, Dillingham, Sheppard, and Reeves (53-points from the quartette). The game featured a blazing pace that led to 65 shots from Kentucky and 29 3PT attempts.

Prior to this first game, the ‘Cats had defeated two in-state opponents in their exhibition games in Georgetown College (92-69) and Kentucky State (99-53). Kentucky entered the season with a pre-season AP Poll rank of No. 16 in the country, which feels a bit low. Kentucky’s opponent on Monday night, New Mexico State, had an interesting end to their season last year. The team had their season cut short due to hazing allegations against their men’s basketball program under head coach Greg Heiar. Heiar was immediately fired, and their season was suspended in mid-February with a shortened season record of 9-15. Jason Wooten was hired as the head coach in the off-season and is in his first season as the Aggies head coach. Hooten had previously been the head coach of the Sam Houston State program for the last 13 years. The Aggies roster features a slew of transfer including Western Kentucky transfer Jordan Rawls, UCF transfer Brandon Suggs, and Seton Hall transfer Femi Odukale.

Kentucky’s trio of big men in Zvonimir Ivisic (eligibility), Aaron Bradshaw (foot), and Ugonna Onyenso (foot) were all out for the season-opening matchup with no set date for return.

Keys to the game for Kentucky included the Freshman PG impact in Wagner and Dillingham, Dillingham and Sheppard’s energy and impact off the bench, Edwards continuing to get comfortable in the offensive flow, the front court impact without any of the three 7-footers, and defense creating transition opportunities leading to easy buckets.

The first starting lineup of the season for the ‘Cats featured DJ Wagner, Antonio Reeves, Justin Edwards, Adou Thiero, and Tre Mitchell.

Game Recap:

First Half

Kentucky won the tip and Thiero scored the first points of the season for the ‘Cats on a putback attempt. The Aggies responded to a missed Wagner three with their first three of the game. Edwards lost control of the ball after a good move in the post on the next possession. The Aggies nailed their second three of the game to take a 6-2 early lead. Edwards responded with a pull-up mid-range jumper. Edwards hit the first three of the game for the ‘Cats to push them in front 8-6. Wagner sped down the court and finished at the rim through traffic to extend the Kentucky lead to 10-6 (8-0 UK run) with 14:04-minutes to play at the first media timeout. Dillingham, Burks, and Sheppard are the first ‘Cats off the bench for Kentucky. Thiero found his way to the free-throw line on back-to-back Kentucky possessions, hitting 3 out of 4 to give the ‘Cats a 13-8 lead. The ‘Cats pushed the ball after an Aggies made shot and Dillingham had an athletic finish at the rim. Kentucky led 17-10 at the under 12-minute media timeout. The Aggies converted a 3-point play after the timeout and went on a quick 5-0 run to narrow the ‘Cats lead to 17-15. After a few sloppy possessions from the ‘Cats Edwards found Reeves for an open three that pushed the score to 20-15 with 9:44-minutes to play. Wagner found Reeves for a deep three, his second of the first half. The score was 23-17 Kentucky at the under 8-minute media timeout. Dillingham picked up his second foul with 7-minutes left in the half on an egregious foul call. Sheppard replaced Dillingham and made an outstanding defensive play on the next possession. Sheppard poked the ball away again and Wagner found him in transition for a huge dunk. New Mexico State hit their third three of the game to narrow the Kentucky lead back to 5 at 25-20. Sheppard again created two more steals on the defensive end, losing one attempting to save it back inbounds. Kentucky led 27-20 at the under 4-minute media timeout. Sheppard was fouled on a 3PT attempt and proceeded to hit all three free-throws to push the lead to 30-22 with 3-minutes to play in the half. Sheppard found Reeves for a driving layup through contact, then pulled up and nailed a three-pointer on the next possession, his first in a Kentucky uniform to give the ‘Cats a 35-24 lead. Mithcell finally made his first shot of the game on a post-move in the pain, but the Aggies responded with a three-pointer just before the first half buzzer to narrow the Kentucky halftime lead to 37-29.

The ‘Cats shot 39% from the field in the half and 31% from 3PT (4 of 13). The ‘Cats committed just 1 first half turnover to 5 assists and garnered 5 steals on defense. Sheppard contributed 8 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals in 11 first half minutes. Reeves matched Sheppard with 8 first half points. Thiero added 5 points and 6 rebounds. Dillingham played just 6 minutes due to foul trouble.

Halftime: Kentucky 37 – New Mexico State 29

Second Half

The second half began with Reeves hitting 1 out of 2 free-throws at the line after getting fouled on a drive to the basket. Edwards hit his second three of the game over a defender to extend the Kentucky lead to 41-29. Dillingham was again the first player off the bench for Coach Cal in the second half. Mitchell took his defender off the dribble and finished a layup at the rim. Good ball movement from Kentucky left Mitchell with a find to Dillingham for a three-pointer. Kentucky led 48-33 with 14:54-minutes left in the second half. Dillingham saved a ball to Sheppard. The ball found its way back to Dillingham who found Burks for a huge slam. Burks started a fast break on the next defensive possession that ended with a Reeves transition layup that gave Kentucky a 54-35 lead with 11:44-minutes to play. Sheppard hit a contested mid-range jumper to extend the ‘Cats lead to over 20 for the first time in the game, 56-35. Dillingham raced down the court and finished a crafty and-one opportunity at the bucket. Sheppard drove for another lay-in and added a block on the other end before sitting for a breather to the applause of the Rupp Arena crowd. Mitchell once again took the defender off the dribble and finished with a powerful slam to give Kentucky a 63-38 lead. Wagner found a slashing Edwards for a baseline slam. Dillingham connected on a mid-range floater. Wagner then stole the ball on the next possession and finished at the rim for another and-one opportunity. Wagner finished another crafty shot that gave the ‘Cats a 71-46 lead. Wagner then nailed a step-back three where he lost the defender, pushing the lead to 74-46 with 5-minutes left to play. Mitchell found a slashing Edwards for another easy finish. Sheppard found Wagner with a transition lob that found the bucket. The ‘Cats led 78-46 at the under 4-minute media timeout. Dillingham connected on another three-pointer. Coach Calipari subbed in Canada, Hart, Horn, and Watkins with a little over a minute to play. Burks threw up a deep three-pointer that found the net as the shot-clock was winding down to end the game. Kentucky went on to defeat New Mexico State 86-46.

Final: Kentucky 86 – New Mexico State 46

Kentucky came out of the locker room in the second half as a different team. The team scorched the nets in route to outscoring the Aggies 49-17 in the second half. The ‘Cats ended the game on a 17-0 run and 21-2 extended run. The defense held New Mexico State scoreless for the final 6:14-minutes. The Kentucky bench contributed 36 points. 5 players finished the game in double figures for Kentucky. Overall, it was a ultra successful opening night for the ‘Cats. The star Freshman in Wagner and Dillingham hit their stride in the second half, regularly featuring creative finishes at the rim and finding open teammates for easy buckets. Sheppard provided a spark off the bench in a stuffed stat line. Dillingham and Sheppard were constantly active in on-ball defense, creating multiple steals and transition opportunities. The veteran players in Mitchell and Reeves didn’t have efficient scoring nights but stayed involved throughout the game in multiple aspects with Mitchell leading the team with 5 assists and the duo leading the team in plus/minus total (Reeves +38, Mitchell +36).

Game Stats:

NMST FG %: 32% (22% 3PT)

Kentucky FG %: 49% (31% 3PT – 9 of 29) (68% FT – 13 of 19)

Rebounds: 43 – 33 Kentucky

Assist/Turnover Ratio: 17:6

Turnovers: UK (6), NMST (18)

Points off Turnovers: 24 – 6 Kentucky

Fast Break Points: 25 – 7 Kentucky

Paint Points: 46 – 20 Kentucky

Player Stats:

Rob Dillingham – [(17 points) (5 rebounds) (3 assists) (2 steals)]

DJ Wagner – [(13 points) (2 rebounds) (4 assists) (3 steals)]

Justin Edwards – [(12 points) (5 rebounds) (1 assist) (2 steals)]

Reed Sheppard – [(12 points) (5 rebounds) (2 assists) (2 steals) (2 blocks)]

Antonio Reeves – [(11 points (2 rebounds) (1 assist) (2 steals)]

Tre Mitchell – [(9 points) (9 rebounds) (5 assists) (1 steal)]

Jordan Burks – [(7 points) (3 rebounds)]

Adou Thiero – [(5 points) (6 rebounds) (1 block)]

Brennan Canada [(1 rebound) (1 assist)]

The ‘Cats will return to Rupp Arena for their second game of the season when they take on the Texas A&M Commerce Lions (0-1) on Friday, November 10. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. The game will be available online on SEC +.

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