The No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats survived a sloppy performance to beat the 15th-seeded Northern Kentucky Norse 79-70 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday.
Kentucky struggled at times offensively, shooting 44.3 percent from the floor and just 17.6 percent from three-point range, but its defense was a difference-maker, as it held Northern Kentucky to a 35.6 percent conversion rate from the field.
Despite the strong defensive play, Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio stressed the importance of all-around improvement in the coming rounds to avoid an early exit:
Freshman guard De'Aaron Fox led the way for the Wildcats with 19 points, while freshman forward Bam Adebayo added 15 points and 18 rebounds to continue his recent double-double trend, according to Kentucky Basketball:
While most of Northern Kentucky's players shot the ball poorly, junior guard Lavone Holland II and freshman forward Carson Williams kept its head above water with 43 combined points.
It was immediately apparent that the Norse would have trouble competing with the length and athleticism of Kentucky, as the Wildcats built a 23-12 lead over the game's first nine minutes.
Rather than breaking the contest open, however, Northern Kentucky started to make a run on the strength of this explosive dunk by Holland:
The Norse went on a 9-0 run and whittled Kentucky's lead down to just two points; however, the Wildcats followed that up with a 13-0 run of their own.
It was highlighted by turning defense into offense, as Isaiah Briscoe secured a steal and found Adebayo for an easy finish, courtesy of NCAA March Madness:
The Wildcats entered the locker room with a 38-24 lead, and Northern Kentucky's offensive inefficiency was on full display:
Kentucky's lead hovered around that margin for most of the second half, and although the Norse had some small runs and made things interesting at times, the Wildcats always had an answer.
Fox was usually the one to make a play, as he did with this monstrous dunk:
The Wildcats held a seemingly comfortable 14-point lead at the under-four timeout, but their shooting issues prevented them from easily putting the game away.
Kentucky went nearly five game minutes without making a field goal until a Briscoe layup with 1:11 remaining.
Northern Kentucky started to hit shots and cut the deficit to as little as seven with 24 seconds on the clock, but there wasn't enough time left to play the fouling game effectively.
The Wildcats' free-throw shooting was good enough down the stretch to close out the game, which could bode well moving forward, but rhythm on offense was a clear problem.
Kentucky's pure talent was enough to get past a team of Northern Kentucky's caliber, but it isn't likely to get past 10-seeded Wichita State Sunday with a repeat performance.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari had little to say about his team's performance after the game, but complimented the level of competition Northern Kentucky provided, according to Mark Story of Kentucky.com:
Calipari also acknowledged the fact that a better showing will be needed in order to get past the Shockers:
Holland expressed pride with the manner in which he and rest of the Norse fought against a superior team:
Northern Kentucky head coach John Brannen felt making the tournament was a great jumping-off point for the program moving forward:
Although they fell short, the Norse acquitted themselves well in an unfamiliar situation.