As is normally the case with early rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the talking heads like to frame Kentucky games as a “David vs. Goliath” narrative. Perhaps it’s to just have a storyline or maybe they just want the nation to cheer against the Goliath known as the Kentucky Wildcats. Either way, Saturday’s matchup against Wofford was another Big Bad U vs the Charming Little Guy.
For much of the first half, it indeed appeared that David was going to topple the mighty Goliath, twice extending their lead to 6 points. And that was without Fletcher Magee hitting a single 3-point shot (only 2 points for the half). Instead, it was Wofford’s Nathan Hoover who drained 2 threes, giving the Terriers 5 treys for the half compared to the Cats going 0-6 from long range.
Free throws and a few more 2-point attempts kept the Cats close and they eventually took the lead as the first half wound down, and kept a small advantage (28-26) at the half. It wasn’t surprising that Reid Travis was the leading scorer for UK in the first half, but it did raise a couple of eyebrows on media row that the 2nd leading scorer was Jemarl Baker.
But the Blue Faithful felt confident that their beloved Wildcats would come out in the 2nd half and take full control of the game. It just had to happen.
However, with 17:00 remaining in the game, not only did the Terriers tie the game, they managed to build a 3-point lead. To say the BBN was getting restless in Veterans Memorial Arena would be a huge understatement. From that point forward, the fight was on. It no longer felt like David vs. Goliath, but rather had a feel of Ali vs. Frazier, with each fighter landing some strong blows only to have their opponent strike back equally hard.
For the Terriers, Hoover led the way with 19 points followed by Cameron Jackon’s 11. They held their own on the boards (30 for Wofford, 36 for the Cats) and both teams protected the ball nicely (9 turnovers each). But it was at the free throw line where Kentucky put the game away, much like they have been able to do for most of the season. Reid Travis once again led the Cats in scoring and rebounds, recording a double-double (14, 11). Hagans was the only other Wildcat in double figures with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Jemarl Baker, Jr., though was the big story. It was Baker who made the first 3-pointer for the Cat and it was not only his timely baskets but also his defensive effort that carried the team when Quickley and Johnson were struggling. Coach Cal noted:
“We coach every kid like they’re a starter. That’s how they’re trained, every one of these kids. And I keep saying, we don’t know who’s going to be a star.”
For the Big Blue Nation, it was too close for comfort. For the Wofford faithful, it was a too-early exit from the tournament where they had hoped to make a deep run. In the end, though, it’s always “survive and advance” when it comes to the Big Dance. And on this day, Goliath did survive. Next stop: Kansas City!
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