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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ben Roberts

Kentucky finally beats a quality opponent, tops Michigan in London basketball showcase

LONDON — The Kentucky Wildcats couldn’t put away Michigan State in the Champions Classic last month. They couldn’t come close to toppling Gonzaga a few days later.

Turns out, all they had to do to beat a quality foe was cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The No. 19-ranked Cats defeated the Michigan Wolverines 73-69 on Sunday evening in London’s O2 Arena, the program’s first trip to Europe for a regular-season game.

Michigan wasn’t ranked, but the Wolverines did start the season at No. 22 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. They were on the “also receiving votes” list in the latest rankings — technically the No. 32 team in the country — but the Cats will surely be happy with this victory after beating their lesser-regarded foes badly but falling against their only top-flight competition so far.

UK is likely to play just one more game against a ranked team during the calendar year: a Dec. 17 date with No. 21 UCLA in Madison Square Garden for the CBS Sports Classic.

Michigan kept things close throughout Sunday’s contest — and briefly led in the second half — before the Wildcats grinded out the victory.

Oscar Tshiebwe had 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Cats, sitting out some of the second half with foul trouble. Cason Wallace (14 points, eight rebounds and five assists) and Jacob Toppin (14 points) made some big plays in the second half, and Antonio Reeves kept UK on pace early with nine first-half points, going 3-for-3 from three-point range before the break Reeves finished with 11 points.

Wallace’s three-pointer to give a 71-66 lead with 1:11 left as the shot clock ticked down was the last big shot of the game.

Kentucky was 9-for-15 from deep for the game and hit its threes in the first half — 4-for-6 from deep before missing a last-second attempt to beat the halftime buzzer — but struggled elsewhere before the break. The Cats were just 8-for-22 on two-pointers in the first half and made just two of 10 attempts that were designated as two-point jumpers. They were also just six of 11 on free throws.

Still, UK led the Wolverines at halftime, 37-36, and extended that advantage in the opening minutes of the second half, thanks in large part to Wallace’s offensive contributions.

The Cats’ lead jumped up to eight points just a couple of minutes in the half, but Michigan quickly came back, taking a 50-49 lead about five minutes later.

Kentucky scored on its next possession — after offensive rebounds by Wallace and Ugonna Onyenso — to take a 51-50 advantage, and the Cats never trailed again, though the game remained in doubt until the final minute.

Michigan’s top player — All-America candidate Hunter Dickinson — didn’t score his first points of the game until there was 10:42 left on the clock in the first half, but he still managed to finish with 23 points and eight rebounds. The 7-footer had a particularly impressive scoring flurry in the second half while Tshiebwe was on the bench in foul trouble.

This was the Wildcats’ first-ever regular-season basketball game in Europe, part of the Hall of Fame London Showcase. The event also marked the first time college basketball was played in the O2 Arena, with Marist defeating Maine 62-61 in the undercard game earlier Sunday.

UK travel plans home

The Wildcats won’t be spending much more time in London following the final buzzer of Sunday’s game, which ended after 8 p.m. local time. A team dinner was set for 10 p.m., and the players will need to get to bed pretty quickly from there.

The plan called for the Cats to have a team breakfast at 7 a.m. Monday and then board the bus for a ride to the airport at 8 a.m. The team’s chartered flight back home is scheduled to take off at 11 a.m. local time and land at the Cincinnati-area airport at 3 p.m. ET.

UK’s traveling party is expected to be back in Lexington around 6:30 p.m. Monday.

The Cats departed Lexington for London last Wednesday evening.

Kentucky’s next game

The Cats get a little time off between the London trip and their next game.

Kentucky will host Yale at 1 p.m. Saturday in Rupp Arena, just the second time the Wildcats have faced the Ivy League program. UK defeated Yale 79-58 during the 1961-62 season.

The Bulldogs are off to an 8-1 start to the 2022-23 campaign, with their lone loss coming on a 65-62 defeat at Colorado, a Buffaloes team that has already beat Tennessee by 12 points and Texas A&M by 28 points this season.

Yale has made two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, both as a 14 seed. The Bulldogs lost to Purdue in last season’s tournament.

UK and Yale do have one common opponent so far this season: Howard, which the Cats beat by 42 points on the season’s opening night and the Bulldogs beat by 46 points on Nov. 30.

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