By Jamie H. Vaught
LEXINGTON, Ky. – A couple of nights before No. 2 Kentucky goes to the bright lights of New York City where it will face 12th-ranked Michigan State, the Wildcats, who struggled in the early first half, bounced back to stop feisty Canisius 93-69 Sunday night, Nov. 13, at Rupp Arena in a final tune-up for Tuesday night’s ESPN showdown.
It was sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe who did most of the damage against the Golden Griffins from Buffalo, N.Y. as he steadied his younger teammates with his leadership. Briscoe hit a career-high 21 points on a 9-of-13 shooting.
The Wildcats, now 2-0, got off to a slow start when they fell behind by seven points at the 16:42 mark. But Briscoe went to work and helped UK close the first half with a 17-4 run for 44-35 halftime advantage as the 6-3 guard gunned in 17 points.
One of the game’s highlights came at the very end of the opening half when freshman sensation De’Aaron Fox (pictured in a second-half action) hurled an alley-oop pass for rookie Malik Monk’s thunderous dunk.
And it was all Kentucky the rest of the way. UK hit 57.1 percent of its field goals in the second half while limiting Canisius to a poor 37 percent shooting.
Nevertheless, Canisius -- which was picked to finish No. 9 in a 11-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, according to the Sporting News preseason yearbook -- gave a good fight against Kentucky.
In addition to Briscoe, UK had three other players in double figures. Fox tied Briscoe for game’s scoring honors with 21 points. It was his first 20-point game as a Wildcat while hitting all nine of his free throws. Monk and rookie Bam Adebayo added 16 and 14 points, respectively.
Adebayo also took the rebounding honors with a game-high 11 rebounds, including six on offensive boards. He also blocked three shots.
Briscoe, now a veteran, understands his current role with the team.
“I’m just trying to lead these young guys, keep them on the right track and keep them focused,” he said after the game.
Asked about his career-high scoring performance, Briscoe commented, “It’s fine. I was just doing whatever I needed to do to keep my team in the game. We came out sluggish. We weren’t hitting shots so I had to keep us in the game.”
Briscoe is one of the very few Wildcats who actually recognizes the “process” of going through a winning collegiate experience at a big-time program like Kentucky.
“They (the freshmen) will learn sooner or later,” he said. “We have a big game on Tuesday so it was good that we were down in the first half early so they can get used to stuff like that. We should be fine.”
Adebayo said Briscoe’s valuable experience is a big comfort for the squad.
“I think it (helped) because he’s used to the college game and the pace," said the 6-10 forward. "We’re getting used to it, but he’s our leader. We follow.”
According to Kentucky coach John Calipari, Briscoe did all of the talking on the hardwood floor and that was good.
“He's the only one,” Calipari said of Briscoe. “I had to take Wenyen (Gabriel) out for not talking. Malik doesn't talk. Malik talks as the action is happening. Like, as they come together, switch. It's too late.
“We're playing with a bunch of freshmen who never talked to anybody on the court, who never defended for an entire possession ….”
Calipari, though, still likes his talented team which has a lot of work to do down the road.
“I think we're an unselfish team,” he said. “I don't think we're selfish in any way. We're just used to being in their own shell. … Now it's truly team defense. It's running schemes together. It's playing off of one another. And we're, believe me, light years from that right now. It's going to be a process.”
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The UK-Michigan State 7 p.m. showdown on Tuesday night is the first game of the “Champions Classic” doubleheader. The nightcap will feature Duke and Kansas. Both games will be televised by ESPN.
Champions Classic, which is college basketball’s season-opening doubleheader event, has pitted the best against the best for the last six seasons and it will continue through the 2019 campaign with Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State participating. The teams rotate opponents in the marquee event at various locations such as New York, Chicago and Indianapolis.
Briscoe believes his team is ready for the showdown.
Yes, I think so,” he said. “They’ve played in other big-time games before, I’m sure. This is another big game and we have to come out and play.
"Coach says he forces young guys to grow up quick and three games into the season, we’re playing at the (Madison Square) Garden. But we have to come out with the win.”
One of Michigan State’s top players is 6-7 Miles Bridges, a highly-regarded freshman who had a game-high 21 points along with seven rebounds in MSU’s 65-63 loss to Arizona Friday night in the Armed Forces Classic.
De'Aaron Fox has played against Bridges in the past.
“Yeah, I know him pretty well,” said the Kentucky freshman. “We played each other once in AAU. He is a strong guy who can get up and down the floor. He played two, three, four and has been putting up good numbers since he has been at Michigan State. You just have to go out and play.”
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught