Kentucky Outmuscles Providence 61-53 in NCAA Tournament; Sunday's Game Tips Off at 2:40 PM
By Jamie H. Vaught
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Five more to go for Kentucky.
Based on Sister Jean’s NCAA basketball tournament prediction, the Wildcats will win five more games to capture the school’s ninth national championship after they defeated Providence College 61-53 in a first-round Big Dance matchup Friday night.
The 103-year-old team chaplain for Loyola Chicago men’s basketball team had predicted the Kentucky Wildcats would win the national crown during her recent appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America while promoting her new book.
The next game for No. 6 seed Kentucky is Sunday afternoon against No. 3 seed Kansas State. The tip-off time is 2:40 p.m. ET and CBS will carry the game.
Leading the Cats’ attack against Providence were seniors Oscar Tshiebwe, who grabbed a game-high 25 rebounds, and Antonio Reeves and Jacob Toppin, who scored 22 and 18 points, respectively.
Tshiebwe’s 25 rebounds are the most for any player in an NCAA Tournament game since Phil Hubbard of Michigan had 26 in 1977. In addition, his 25 rebounds broke a school record for an NCAA Tournament game, which was previously held by Jerry Bird, who had 24 rebounds against Iowa in 1956.
While UK, now 22-11, struggled with its field goal shooting at 36.5 percent, the Cats overcame it with a very strong performance on the boards, outrebounding Providence by a margin of 17 rebounds. Entering the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky ranked No. 16 in the nation in rebounding average with 39 per game.
Kentucky, a poor free throw shooting team, ranking No. 229 (out of 352) in the country at 70.3 percent, did fairly well from the line, hitting 10 of 13 free throws for 77 percent.
“We made every free throw down the stretch we needed to make to keep them at bay,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Added Providence College coach Ed Cooley, whose Friars finished at 21-12, “At the end of the day, the game was won on the backboard – plus 17 on the glass, 18 offensive rebounds (for Kentucky). That’s the game right there. They made the plays they had to make to win the game.”
The Wildcats also limited Providence to 53 points, marking the fewest Kentucky has allowed in an NCAA Tournament game since 2015 when it stopped West Virginia 78-39. Entering the game, the Friars averaged 78.1 points per game.
After heavily favored Kentucky was knocked out early in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, losing to Saint Peter’s and stunning the Big Blue Nation, Toppin said the victory over Providence “was a big relief, obviously. I knew what this team was capable of so we got the job done. So props to my teammates. We all stuck together.
“Even when they made their runs, we didn’t put our heads down. We kept fighting. Defensively, Oscar had rebounds. That’s insane. But we did the little things that won us the game.”
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Even though Tshiebwe underwent a preseason knee surgery, missing the first two games of the season, he still posted impressive numbers, earning All-America honors for the second year in a row.
Calipari believes the 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward returned to action prematurely. “People want to forget he had a knee operation and was out four weeks to start the season and should have been out two more," said the coach. "He forced his way back (saying), ‘I want to play. I’m good. I can do this.’ Should have been out two more weeks. And it’s been in the last month that he has gotten back to where he was. Now he is going beyond, but, no, he impacts the game.”
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Former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith attended the game, watching the Cats from the stands. Before the game, he was seen posing for pictures with the Wildcat fans.
Calipari’s father, Vince, also attended the contest. The current coach was asked about having his father sitting behind the Kentucky bench.
“It was even better having him in the locker room afterwards," said Coach Cal. “My dad is 90, had his knee operated on, and that’s the first game he had seen in nine years. With COVID, and all the other stuff, he hadn’t been able to go to games.
“He has no wrinkles on his face. We sat there and looked at him. You don’t have a wrinkle on your face. You’re 90 years old. What the heck? He just wants to be told he is handsome. He said I don’t need to hear that stuff. Just tell me I’m handsome. My sister and brother-in-law were here, too. Obviously, (wife) Ellen was here.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of six books about UK basketball, including newly-released "Forever Crazy About the Cats: An Improbable Journey of a Kentucky Sportswriter Overcoming Adversity." He is also the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.