LEXINGTON - Kentucky basketball's seven-game homestand against overmatched foes came to a merciful end with a 76-64 win over Southern Tuesday.
In a lackluster performance, Kentucky trailed with 4:21 left in the first half. The Wildcats stretched the lead to 13 points three times in the second half, but Southern was able to keep the deficit in a manageable range. Kentucky led by just eight points with 3:51 remaining before clinching the win with six straight points from Oscar Tshiebwe.
"They out-hustled us," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "They out-played us. We couldn't stay in front of them. They crowded the court and stayed in front of us."
Tshiebwe led the Wildcats with 23 points and 11 rebounds, recording his seventh double-double in eight games. He was joined in double figures by freshman guard TyTy Washington (14).
Here is what you need to know about the win.
Time for a bigger challenge
Perhaps it should be no surprise that Kentucky's worst performance so far came at the end of a seven-game homestand against low-major foes. The week break between Kentucky's last game against Central Michigan and Southern offered little respite with several players missing practice time due to illness.
After the Central Michigan game, multiple players admitted even they were ready for an uptick in competition. The number of empty seats at Rupp Arena during the homestand offered clear evidence fans had reached that opinion weeks ago. Southern was the fifth opponent ranked outside the top 300 nationally by KenPom.com to play at Rupp Arena during the homestand.
The Southern game was part of Kentucky's new "Unity Series" that will feature a game against a SWAC opponent each season to highlight the mission of HBCUs. The events leading up to the game, including a joint trip of the teams to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, were more important than anything that happened on the court Tuesday night.
Kentucky's lackluster performance will quickly be forgotten if it performs well in the upcoming stretch against Notre Dame, Ohio State and Louisville. By the time the Wildcats return to Rupp Arena on Dec. 22 for the rivalry game against U of L, we should have learned much more about this team than the current homestand taught.
"We've got a gauntlet coming in," Calipari said. "I just heard Notre Dame's recruiting football weekend, the big one, it's going to be a party and a celebration and here comes Kentucky to town. That will just amp it up about 20 times, and I'll tell you, let's go because it's going to be a physical energetic engaged game, hopefully by both teams. I know Notre Dame will play like that."
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Daimion Collins making progress
No Kentucky player benefitted more from the games against low-major opponents than Collins.
Against Southern, the 6-foot-9, 202-pound freshman tallied eight points and six rebounds in 17 minutes. He blocked three shots and recorded one steal.
"I thought Daimion did some good stuff today," Calipari said. "He's getting better. He's confident"
Considering Collins opened the season by playing just one minute against Duke, it is easy to dream on his ultimate ceiling after so much progress in his first month of games. Now, Collins will need to prove his improvements can carry over into games against high-major foes.
He will get that chance starting this weekend.
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Closer to full strength
Kentucky will not be at full strength this season thanks to the season-ending hamstring injury for junior C.J. Fredrick, but the Wildcats looked as close as they could get when the remaining scholarship players all dressed out for the game and participated in warmups.
Freshman forward Bryce Hopkins did check in until the 12-minute mark in the second half -- he was wearing a wrap around his lower back on the bench up until that point -- but Kentucky used its 11 remaining scholarship players in a game for the first time this season. All 11 players we available for a game only once before, in the opener against Duke, but Dontaie Allen did not play in that game due to a coach's decision.
Super senior guard Davion Mintz returned from a three-game absence due to Illness. Mintz was sidelined just as forwards Jacob Toppin (shoulder) and Lance Ware (ankle) returned from multiple-game absences.
Hopkins's back issue makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the rotation, but Calipari handed the bulk of the minutes against Southern to the five starters and reserves Daimion Collins, Jacob Toppin and Mintz. Ware and Allen saw limited action in the first half when Washington and Tshiebwe were sidelined by foul trouble.
Since Southern was the first time all 11 scholarship players were available in the seven-game homestand, he may have to rely on practice performance to set the rotation as the competition level increases. Kentucky now faces three straight top-50 foes starting at Notre Dame Saturday. Calipari is unlikely to have much room to experiment with his rotation in that stretch.
"We've got to start making the decision on some guys getting more minutes and some guys getting less," Calipari said. "It doesn't matter what year you are, none of that, and so if we have a roster of 11, I'm not going to play 11 guys. I mean, now, who are the guys that aren't playing? You have to be ready to go."
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky basketball vs. Southern: Cats overcome lackluster performance