LEXINGTON — Mark Pope was an integral part of Kentucky’s 1996 national championship team and nearly orchestrated an upset of No. 5 Kentucky Friday night.
The Wolverines (0-1) led by 12 points before the Wildcats rallied in the second half and escaped with a 73-63 victory in the season-opener for both teams.
Kentucky (1-0) opened the second half with an 18-0 run to gain enough momentum to carry the Wildcats through the remainder of the opening half. The Wildcats made 10 of their first 12 field goals to open the second frame.
“We are what we are right now and we won a game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I told them after, losing stinks, it makes you sick to your stomach. Winning is fun. Even if you played bad, you better enjoy winning. Enjoy any time you win a game.”
Hamidou Diallo provided the spark for the Wildcats’ hot start to open the second half. Diallo tallied seven points during the brief spree, including a pair of crowd-pleasing two-handed slam dunks. Diallo led the Wildcats with 18 points.
“We just came out in the second half more confident and (played with) more energy,” Diallo said. “We came out in the second half fired up and put them away.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander followed Diallo with 13, Kevin Knox had 12 and Nick Richards chipped in with 10. Gilgeous-Alexander started at point-guard in place of Quade Green, who played 21 minutes and scored four points.
Traditionally a man-to-man squad under Calipari, Kentucky used a zone in the second half to disrupt the Wolverines, a scheme that provided issues for Utah Valley in the post and on the perimeter.
“That was the difference in the game,” Pope said.
Calipari didn’t commit to using the zone for the remainder of the season but didn’t rule out the option, either.
“I’ll play as much as I have to to win a game,” Calipari said. “Whatever this team needs, I'm going to have to do. We're young, we're long, there's just so much we have to do and part of this early is going to be about survival. We survived this game. Survived it.”
Kentucky’s second-half performance was a stark contrast to the opening half. The Wildcats made just seven shots in the first half and shot 22 percent from the field. The Wildcats fared much better in the second half and shot 59.4 percent from the field.
Calipari’s squad missed their final 15 shots of the first half and failed to score during the final four minutes of the opening half. The Wolverines went on a 7-0 run to close out the half and led 34-25 at the break.
“We were missing shots that we normally make,” Diallo said. “Our shots just weren’t falling, but I liked how we bounced back in the second half and showed what type of team that we are.”
Kenneth Ogbe led Utah Valley with 12 points, followed by Jake Toolson with 11. Brandon Randolph, Conner Toolson and Isaac Neilson added 10 points each.
Calipari’ starting lineup featured the freshmen tandem of Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo, Knox, Richards and P.J. Washington.
Richards paced the Wildcats with eight points in the opening half and scored six of Kentucky’s first 12 points, while the rest of the team struggled to keep pace with the Wolverines. Richards had two points in the second half.
Pope received a warm applause from the Kentucky contingent and reflected on tiger past following his team’s 10-point setback.
“I’ve always respected him. He's, obviously, being a graduate from here, you keep an eye on stuff, but the one thing that really disappointed me, you know, is that his ovation was better than mine,” Calipari said. “… What he's doing in the WAC they're moving up, moving up, moving up, and that's what you try to do when you take over a program. And I can't imagine that that whole state was rocking in the first half. And I would imagine even after the game they walk away and say, you know what, we're going to be all right.”
Gabriel brings energy
Wenyen Gabriel provided a spark off the bench for Kentucky with his hustle plays and rebounding. Gabriel made just three shots on 13 attempts and tallied just seven points, but had 13 rebounds and recorded three of the team’s eight blocks.
“I was happy with how Wenyen played and competed,” Calipari said. “(He had) 13 rebounds and again he goes 3-13 and believe me, he missed a layup, layup, wide open layup, and stuff happens. What I like is he kept playing. He didn't act like, well I'm going to act like I don't care right now. He kept playing. And that's what you have to do.”
Pope’s squad doesn’t have much time for rest and will play at No. 4 Duke at 5 p.m. Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Gametracker: Vermont at Kentucky, 3:30 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.