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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Ben Roberts

Kentucky’s terrible start too much to overcome. No. 2 Gonzaga hands Cats another loss.

SPOKANE, Wash. — It was an all systems fail from the get-go for the Kentucky Wildcats on Sunday evening.

A much-anticipated matchup between No. 4 UK and No. 2 Gonzaga fizzled — from the Cats’ perspective, at least — almost immediately, and the Bulldogs rolled Kentucky, 88-72, in a packed Spokane Arena that was already raucous an hour before the opening tip.

UK missed its first five shots of the game. The Zags made their first five shots of the game.

By the time Oscar Tshiebwe finally got UK on the board with a turnaround jumper in the lane, Gonzaga was already up 8-0. The Zags jumped out to a 19-6 lead before the second TV timeout of the game. John Calipari called his own timeout at that point, but his Cats never narrowed the deficit to fewer than eight points the rest of the first half.

A Kentucky team that prides itself on defense and rebounding was exposed early and often while trying to protect its own basket and missed 12 shots before grabbing its first offensive board of the game.

With 2:31 left before halftime, Anton Watson took advantage of yet another defensive breakdown by the Cats near the perimeter and flew into the paint for an emphatic slam dunk right in front of a Bulldogs student section that had been hounding the Kentucky players well before the game even started. That jam put the Zags ahead 41-23 and elicited the loudest pop of the night from an arena with a capacity of about 12,000 fans — probably 99 percent of them cheering for Gonzaga despite this game’s designation as a “neutral court” matchup.

It was the Zags’ first game in the Spokane Arena since 2014, and this was the first of six games these two teams will play moving forward. The series will wrap up in 2027 at McCarthey Athletic Center — also known as “The Kennel” — a 6,000-seat arena on Gonzaga’s campus.

The Cats did show some fight out of the break, narrowing the Zags’ lead to just 49-45 with more than 13 minutes left to play. That silenced the crowd for a bit, but the solace lasted only a few seconds. Tshiebwe picked up his fourth personal foul on the ensuing possession and headed to the UK bench. Gonzaga’s lead was back in double digits by the time Tshiebwe was back on the court four minutes later. The final outcome was never in doubt from there.

Tshiebwe led Kentucky with 20 points and 15 rebounds despite the foul trouble. Jacob Toppin had 16 points, and Cason Wallace scored 14.

Gonzaga star Drew Timme — Tshiebwe’s top rival for repeat national player of the year honors coming into the season — had 22 points and seven rebounds. Julian Strawther was also a force for the Zags, finishing with 20 and 14 rebounds.

Kentucky shot 42.4 percent from three-point range through its first four games, but the Cats went 0-for-10 from deep in the first half and didn’t make a shot from long range until CJ Fredrick hit one with 18:07 left in the second half. UK finished the game 6-for-25 on three-point shots.

The Cats dropped to 3-2 on the season and lost for the second time in six days following a double-overtime defeat to Michigan State in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.

Gonzaga was coming off a 93-74 loss at No. 11 Texas on Wednesday night.

Tshiebwe made his first start of the season Sunday after missing Kentucky’s first two games with a knee injury, then coming off the bench against Michigan State and South Carolina State last weekend. UK’s starting lineup consisted of Sahvir Wheeler, Wallace, Fredrick, Toppin and Tshiebwe, the likely first five that Calipari would have begun the season with had everyone been healthy.

Kentucky’s next game

The Wildcats were scheduled to fly back to Lexington immediately after the Gonzaga game and arrive home well after midnight. UK next plays North Florida at 4 p.m. Wednesday, an early start on the day before Thanksgiving and the team’s only game the rest of this week.

The Ospreys (1-2) started the season with a 104-63 loss at Gonzaga, then suffered a 75-67 defeat at Washington before earning a 72-66 home victory over South Carolina State on Saturday. UK defeated South Carolina State by 43 points Thursday night. North Florida plays at Duquesne on Monday night before heading to Lexington for Wednesday afternoon’s game.

The Kentucky vs. North Florida matchup will air on SEC Network Plus.

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