LEXINGTON (AP) — Julius Randle scored 15 of his 23 points in the second half to lead five Kentucky players in double figures and help the top-ranked Wildcats’ highly touted freshman class debut successfully with an 89-57 season-opening rout of UNC-Asheville on Friday night.
Randle, a 6-foot-9 forward considered the best of Kentucky’s six high school All-American recruits in an eight-man group some are calling the best ever, also grabbed 15 rebounds.
Reserve sophomore forward Alex Poythress added 10 points and 13 rebounds. Reserve Marcus Lee added 17 points, James Young had 11 and Aaron Harrison 10 as Kentucky’s freshmen helped the Wildcats overcome a ragged start.
Kentucky shot 17 of 30 in the second half to finish 28 of 59 (47.5 percent).
Will Weeks’ 19 points led UNC-Asheville, which debuted Nick McDevitt as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
Kentucky outrebounded UNC-Asheville 48-31, held the Bulldogs to 22-of-57 shooting (38.6 percent) and forced 15 turnovers.
The Wildcats converted 30 of 48 free throws, compared to 10 of just 21 attempts for the Bulldogs.
Randle’s 11-of-13 shooting from the line led Kentucky.
The highly anticipated debuts of the Wildcats’ talented class generated some buzz throughout Rupp Arena, with the noise reaching an early peak when coach John Calipari unveiled his starting lineup of sophomore 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein surrounded by Randle, Young and 6-6 twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
Friday marked Andrew Harrison’s on-court debut at point guard after sitting out the exhibitions with a bruised knee. Aaron had subbed well in his absence, but Calipari prefers using him at shooting guard with Andrew as floor general and he finished with five assists.
Andrew showed no effects of the knee as he drove for a game-opening layup and went to the line twice early. But Kentucky’s first-half play was mostly uneven as the Wildcats shot just 11 of 29 from the field (37.9 percent) and had as many turnovers as assists (four) while trying to sort things out.
Those issues caused Calipari to frequently scream at his players, who struggled to put together consistent stretches through 8 1-2 minutes. Good things such as forcing the Bulldogs into two shot-clock violations were offset by breakdowns that allowed them to beat their 2-3 zone inside. Sam Hughes also hit a 3-pointer to provide UNC-Asheville’s third and last lead at 13-12.
Kentucky went on a 15-2 run helped by consecutive 3-pointers from Young and two putbacks by Poythress. The Wildcats went on to lead 41-31 lead at halftime thanks to eight points from Lee, whom Calipari used sparingly during preseason.
Lee also helped provide a 1:58 glimpse of what Kentucky’s only all-freshman look of the half, teaming with the Harrisons, Randle and Young. After using just eight players for a stretch, Calipari began using more of his bench and the Wildcats steadily pulled away for his fifth opening win with the program.
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Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell wanted to challenge his team early in the season.
Facing a raucous crowd, the seventh-ranked Wildcats got all they could handle from pesky Marist before pulling away for a 75-61 win Friday night in the season opener for both teams.
“I have tremendous respect for Marist,” Mitchell said. “So many times we opened the season at home, a comfortable place against a team we had outmatched talent wise. To come into this place and the way they responded. It’s a new season and new team.”
Kentucky is trying to build off last season’s loss to Connecticut in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have been one step away from the Final Four in three of the past four seasons and hope this time they can get there. Wins like Friday will help.
“This was a terrific game with an incredible atmosphere,” Mitchell said. “From the time we got into town it’s been a tremendous experience to be at Marist. They have such a great program, great fans. So pleased our team was able to respond and earn a very good opening win against a very good team.”
After trailing early on as Marist (0-1) was bolstered by a sellout crowd, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead in the second half behind strong play from Bria Goss and Kastine Evans, who scored 15 points to lead the team.
Just as Kentucky looked as if it was going to take control, the Red Foxes scored 11 straight to pull to 50-44 midway through the second half. They had a chance to cut it further, but a 3-pointer by Leanne Ockenden, who led the team with 16 points, rimmed out.
Kentucky then scored 12 of the next 16 points to put the game away.
“Like we told our kids, kudos to Kentucky,” Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. “When they needed to make big 3s they did. When we cut it to six they hit a few in a row. We had a couple of bad turnovers.”