LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)As teammate Kellan Grady strung together long jumpers, Oscar Tshiebwe outrebounded Western Kentucky all by himself on a record-breaking night that supplanted Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal.
Grady made six 3-pointers and scored a season-high 23 points, Tshiebwe grabbed a Rupp Arena-record 28 rebounds and No. 20 Kentucky used an 18-2 second-half run to blow out the Hilltoppers 95-60 on Wednesday.
”Coach wanted me to shoot, my teammates (were) pressing me to shoot the ball and make shots,” said Grady, who struggled from outside just a few games ago. ”And ultimately, I believed in myself as well.”
TyTy Washington Jr. added 20 points and Jacob Toppin scored 12 as the Wildcats (9-2) routed their second consecutive substitute opponent. The in-state Hilltoppers (8-5) were added Monday after the postponement of Kentucky’s scheduled matchup against archrival Louisville because of positive COVID-19 tests within the Cardinals’ program. The Wildcats thumped North Carolina 98-69 on Saturday in Las Vegas.
Kentucky coach John Calipari wasn’t shy with his praise.
”I’ve got a very, very smart basketball team,” said Calipari, whose team totaled 27 assists. ”And, this is crazy, I’ve got some older guys that understand how to be engaged, how to be laser focused. They know because they play. I got some young guys that are still learning, but I’ve got a veteran group.”
Josh Anderson scored 18 points and Camron Justice had 13 for WKU, which was coming off an 82-72 victory over Louisville.
Kentucky’s schedule switch also required adjusting to 7-foot-5 WKU center Jamarion Sharp – college basketball’s tallest player – which it did behind Grady’s outside shooting and Tshiebwe’s dominance on the boards.
Grady went 6 of 9 from long range and 7 of 10 overall for his best performance since transferring from Davidson. Tshiebwe scored 14 points and topped his previous Kentucky-player Rupp Arena mark of 20 boards against Robert Morris midway through the second half. His 21st rebound tied O’Neal’s record with LSU against the Wildcats on Feb. 15, 1990, with the 22nd following soon after and then some.
Tshiebwe flirted with 30 before being pulled with 2:06 remaining as the Wildcats owned the glass 50-27. He acknowledged several rounds of cheers before sitting down for the final minutes.
”That’s amazing, to get 28 rebounds in a game,” the nation’s rebounding leader said. ”It is a blessing and I just want to give all the glory to God because I don’t think I can do that on my own. It is something great, you work harder and everything is going to be so easy.”
WKU pulled to 37-33 early in the second half before Grady scored 11 points during the decisive run that broke open the game. Kentucky made 38 of 68 from the field (56%) and held the ‘Toppers to 33% shooting in the first meeting between the schools since its 2012 NCAA championship run.
”Sometimes you’ve just got to say the other team was better,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. ”And they were better in every area. Again, I don’t have any answers for everything they did. But I just know when they play like that, they were the best team in America today.”
The game change included continued relief efforts for victims of recent deadly tornadoes in western Kentucky, which included Bowling Green. Lexington Police collected toys outside Rupp Arena and ongoing donations to Kentucky Strong topped $4.6 million. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear added encouraging words in a brief halftime speech that drew cheers.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers opened both halves strongly but couldn’t sustain that intensity with late reactions to Kentucky shots off good ball movement. Cold perimeter shooting also hurt as they missed their first eight 3-point attempts and finished 3 of 20 from behind the arc. Sharp exited midway through the second half and did not return.
Kentucky: Even though Sharp blocked seven Wildcats shots by halftime, they were aggressive inside and finished with 44 points in the paint. Toppin’s energy off the bench helped, but shot selection was key as Kentucky worked the ball around Sharp and took mid-range jumpers before he could adjust.
Western Kentucky visits Southern Mississippi on Dec. 30 in its Conference USA opener.
Kentucky hosts Missouri on Wednesday in its Southeastern Conference opener.
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