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Kentucky Faces Off Against Duke

Blue Bloods Battle at Madison Square Garden as the Wildcats Lose to the Blue Devils

UK's Oscar Tshiebwe swats away a Duke layup attempt.
UK's Oscar Tshiebwe swats away a Duke layup attempt. (This image is property of Lex18)
The Duke Blue Devils (1-0) beat the Kentucky Wildcats (0-1), 79-71 in New York, NY - November 9th, 2021 -

On the opening night of the 2021-2022 men’s college basketball season, 22 of the NCAA’s top-25 teams kicked off their seasons, but no game was more anticipated than #10 Kentucky vs #9 Duke. Two of the greatest programs in college basketball’s history would play at 9:30pm in Madison Square Garden in the State Farm Champions Classic. This can’t-miss game followed the other two teams in the State Farm Champions Classic, Kansas and Michigan State, which saw #3 Kansas knocking off the Spartans 87-74 in a relatively close game throughout. These two teams set the stage for one of basketball’s most prestigious rivalries.

Coming into the game, the Wildcats have won just 1 game in their previous 10 meetings with the Blue Devils, but Head Coach John Calipari was confident in this team’s ability to show up on the big stage.

In a weekly press conference, Calipari told UK Athletics Communications and Public Relations that “We approach every game the same . . . All the stuff we're saying is, look, our focus is on us. We're going to play how we play. They're going to play how they play. And either they're more advanced than us or we're a little more advanced than we think we are. But we'll find out.”

With that being said, the Wildcats showed up to play, donning their black Nike Air Force 1’s as they walked into the iconic Madison Square Garden.

The Wildcat alumni were out in full force for this game as the event was being played at the home of the New York Knicks. With that being said, the Knicks have been recognized as the “Kentucky Knicks” because of all the former UK players who are currently on the roster. Kevin Knox II, Nerlens Noel, Immanuel Quickley, and Julius Randle were all in attendance to support the younger generation of Wildcats. RJ Barrett, a Knicks guard, was also in attendance as he played at Duke for one season. Big man Obi Toppin was there supporting his little brother, UK F Jacob Toppin. There was no shortage of star power courtside, but what was happening on-court is what everyone was there for.

The 1st Half

As Duke won the opening tip of the night, neither team seemed to be able to put the ball in the basket as both teams traded missed shots, turnovers, and steals through much of the first two minutes of action. Throughout the first couple of minutes of the half, both teams were aggressively crashing the boards and playing a run 'n' gun style of offense. The teams would trade layups and free throws for much of the first 10 minutes of play. After spending 2 seasons in Morgantown, WV, junior Oscar Tshiebwe made his presence known to Big Blue Nation as he grabbed 8 rebounds (7 offensive) and contributed 4 points early on in the game, giving the Wildcats multiple energy sparks after hustling for the basketball. As anticipated, the game was very much back and forth, as neither team was able to pull away. The largest lead of the first half was a 7-point Duke lead, as Kentucky trailed for the entire half. The only other bright spot for UK scoring-wise was junior G Sahvir Wheeler, who is a former Georgia Bulldog (SEC). Wheeler put up 12 points (2 3-pointers) and contributed 5 assists. John Calipari only played a handful of guys in the first half and none of them added anything special to the game during their time on the court. Duke’s freshman sensation, Paolo Banchero gave the Blue Devils 12 points to go along with Trevor Keels Jr’s 9 points. At the break, the Blue Devils would led the Wildcats 39-35.

The 2nd Half

Out of the break, Sahvir Wheeler and Oscar Tshiebwe continued their strong starts in UK blue as Wheeler assisted Tshiebwe on back-to-back finishes to begin the 2nd half. Junior F Keion Brooks Jr. started to get going in the 2nd half by adding a 3-pointer and a dunk around 16 minutes left to play. Kentucky saw their first and only lead of the game around this time, but turnovers and poor shooting choices plagued the Cats down the stretch. Oscar Tshiebwe continued to dominate on the boards for the Wildcats and was a force inside, but the 2nd half was all about the Duke freshmen duo of Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels Jr. Banchero scored 10 points in the second half to go along with Keels Jr’s 16 points, which was just too much for UK to handle in the end. Although the game remained pretty close throughout the game, the Blue Devils would pull away from the Wildcats and win by the final score of 79-71.

Key Takeaways

The UK lineup played very shallow. The Wildcats had only 6 guys play over 20 minutes, with two players coming in for only 2 minutes total, respectively. If junior Jacob Toppin continues to play aggressively and rebound, then he could have the potential to start over Keion Brooks Jr. at some point this season.

Oscar Tshiebwe is a monster. Big O finished with 17 points and 19 rebounds, with 12 of those being offensive for a Kentucky debut record. He was tenacious on the boards and could be that wrecking force that we have been missing as of late. Over the next couple of games, he should be able to keep up the high work rate and dominate like we saw against Duke.

Neither team was very good. Both UK and Duke were riddled with turnovers, sloppy play, and low-percentage shot attempts. The freshmen for Duke shined bright, but defensive breakdowns and frequent free throw line visits could have played a key role in their performances.

UK Leaders

Oscar Tshiebwe: 17 points, 19 rebounds, 2 blocks

Sahvir Wheeler: 16 points, 10 assists, 7 turnovers

TyTy Washington Jr: 9 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists

Duke Leaders

Trevor Keels Jr: 25 points, 2 assists, 3 steals

Paolo Banchero: 22 points, 7 rebounds, 8/9 free throws

Wendell Moore Jr: 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists

An opening-game loss has never slowed down the Kentucky Wildcats. In the 2018-2019 season, Duke’s Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett combined for 61 points in their debut game to rout the Wildcats. Also that year, Kentucky was crowned the SEC regular season champs before COVID-19 took over. These Wildcats will be just fine because they won’t see a player this season like Paolo Banchero and they are a mature team who will overcome this one-game skid.

The Wildcats will take on the Colonials of Robert Morris this Friday night at 7:00 p.m. on November 12th in Lexington, Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The game can be seen on the SEC Network.

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