LEXINGTON — Kentucky has been scoring easily this season, but it was very high against UNC-Wilmington on Saturday.
The Wildcats are rarely careless with the ball, and they struggled with their decision-making against the Coastal Athletic Conference’s plucky Seahawks.
Both factors doomed England’s defeat at Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon.
After trailing 41-33 at halftime, Kentucky failed to mount a comeback in the final 20 minutes, shockingly losing its first game of the season at home 80-73.
“We couldn’t stay in front of the ball,” UK coach John Calipari said. “You can plan and do all these things, but when you get a lead and they go for a layup on a straight-line drive? That’s tough.”
Those defensive miscues and turnovers were too much for the No. 12 Wildcats (6-2) to overcome. Especially when the Seahawks (6-2) kept taking shots from outside. UNC Wilmington made 11 3-pointers, more than double Kentucky’s 5 3-pointers.
But it wasn’t just the three-point play that cost the Cats seven points.
Saturday’s game seemed unusually sloppy compared to Kentucky’s high standards this season.
The Wildcats entered Saturday’s game averaging just 8.1 turnovers per game, ranking third in the nation; they had scored nine points at 6:37 in the first half. UK ended up turning the ball over 14 times.
“These are all because we’re trying to play the hardest game, not the easy game,” Calipari said. “We have things to learn.”
Not only has Kentucky avoided giving up the ball through its first seven games, but it has also shown crisp ball movement, averaging an SEC-high 20.9 assists per game and ranking sixth in Division I. But the Wildcats only dished out 14 assists against the Seahawks.
On Saturday, Kentucky held fewer than 81 points for the first time this season. The Wildcats have reached that number in each of their first seven games, their longest season start since 1970-71.
“I thought we were selfish going into this game,” said sophomore guard Adou Thiero, who finished with seven points, six rebounds and three assists. “In the first half, we didn’t move the ball to each other as much as we usually do. … Everybody was trying to do their own thing — and we were shut out.”
However, freshman guard Reed Sheppard also had a strong performance, scoring 25 points to help the Wildcats take the lead in this loss and tie his score against Stonehill last month. Team’s personal best. He also had a career and team-high nine rebounds and a game-high six assists.
“Any time you lose, it’s a bad feeling. No one likes losing,” said Sheppard, who shot 9 of 17 from the field (3 of 6 from three-point range) and 4 of 4 from the free throw line. “You have to give credit to UNC Wilmington. They played a great game, they hit the shots. They did what they needed to do.”
Freshman forward Aaron Bradshaw, making his collegiate debut Saturday since missing a foot injury earlier this year, had three points, two rebounds and a block in 13 minutes off the bench. . Freshman guard DJ Wagner, Bradshaw’s teammate at Camden High School in New Jersey, injured his ankle in Tuesday’s win over No. 8 Miami and missed Saturday.
While Calipari later did not provide an update on Wagner, the coach was pleased with the performance he saw from Bradshaw in a limited role, noting that the 7-footer was +11 in the stat line data.
“That means he’s doing a good job,” Calipari said. “He hasn’t gotten used to this stuff yet. But he’s done some good things. This is a good start for him.”
Kentucky won’t play again until next Saturday when it travels to Philadelphia to face Penn State. The loss to the Seahawks was the Wildcats’ first game on an easy schedule as they play during an exam period.
Kentucky only has 5 games in December: UNC-Wilmington in rearview mirror, Penn State on deck, next vs. NC State (Dec. 16), in-state rival Louis Vail (Dec. 21) and Illinois (Dec. 29).
This leaves plenty of practice time for the Wildcats to correct their mistakes.
So did those who looked up at an inopportune time on Saturday.
“That’s part of what this team is going to go through. Now you know we can play with anybody in the country,” Calipari said, referring to his team’s 95-73 win earlier this week. Beat No. 8 Miami. “We could lose to anybody in the country. We’re going to play the right way. Our defense is going to get better. We’re going to bounce back. We’re going to be fine.”
Gossy Sidell:UNC Wilmington head coach makes history with upset win over Kentucky
Aaron Bradshaw:The 7-foot-1 freshman made his Kentucky debut against UNC Wilmington
Contact Kentucky men’s basketball and football reporter Ryan Black at [email protected] and follow him on X @RyanABlack.