A game of firsts not in Kentucky’s favor in stunning loss to UNC-Wilmington

Published 10:48 am Monday, December 4, 2023

The first game of December featured a lot of firsts for Kentucky, one of which of which was a surprise outcome as UNC-Wilmington stunned the 12th-ranked Wildcats 80-73 on Saturday.

Coming off an exciting 95-73 rout of No. 8 Miami in the ACC-SEC Challenge Tuesday, the last home game before the Christmas break featured a duplicate performance of the team’s 96-88 overtime win over Saint Joseph’s on Nov. 20. This time, however, the outcome was different.

“This was Saint Joe’s again, where we couldn’t stay in front of the ball,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “The difference between this and Saint Joe’s? We made shots, so we were able to (win) the game.”

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The Seahawks made shots, including 11 3-pointers, while Kentucky struggled and connected on a season-low five shots from long range on 17 attempts.

“They played their butts off and they deserved to win the game the way they played,” Calipari said. “The shots they made — I mean, and they were big shots when they needed to make a shot. They did. When we needed to make a shot for us, we didn’t.”

The Wildcats (6-2) made their debut on a new court, replacing the previous playing surface that had been in use since the 2001 season. It marked the third time the court has been replaced since the Rupp Arena opened its doors to the public in 1976.

Kentucky lost its first game on the previous court – a 64-52 setback to Western Kentucky 22 years ago and the debut on the newest installation wasn’t a success either as UNC Wilmington handed the Wildcats their first home loss of the year.

“We came into this game selfishly, I think,” Kentucky forward Adou Thiero said. “First half we weren’t really swinging the ball to each other as much as we usually do. We didn’t get the same amount of assists we usually do; guys were trying to do things on their own – we were just out of it.”

Kentucky’s freshman sensation, Reed Sheppard, made his first collegiate start and scored seven of the Wildcats’ last nine points of the first half as the Wildcats trimmed a 14-point deficit to 41-33 at the half. His 3-pointer gave Kentucky its first lead of the game at the 15:38 mark of the second half, but it wasn’t enough. Sheppard finished with 25 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two steals.

“It was a tough game, a tough loss,” he said. “(I don’t care how) I played. Any time you lose a game, I don’t think that that matters. I don’t like losing, and I don’t like losing at all. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to them. They came out and played a great game.”

The loss marked the long-awaited debut of 7-foot-1 center Aaron Bradshaw, who missed the first seven games of the season with an injured foot. Bradshaw’s first field goal was a two-handed slam dunk at the 15-minute mark of the first half. In his debut, Bradshaw scored three points, collected two rebounds and added a block.

“He’s still not in the flow of the stuff yet but he did some good stuff,” Calipari said. “That’s a good start for him.”

Trazarien White scored a career-high 27 points to lead UNC-Wilmington.

White scored 18 of the last 31 points. It was the first road win against a ranked opponent in school history and the biggest for the program since defeating Southern California in the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

“This is a big-time win for us and a confidence booster,” White said. “We will celebrate a little bit, get back to our process, because we don’t want to revert back to before now we’re on the high road.”

Donovan Newby scored 15 points, Shykeim Phillips added 13 and KJ Jenkins had 11 for UNC-Wilmington in the first meeting between the two schools.

UNC-Wilmington coach Takayo Siddle played on a Gardner-Webb team that defeated then-No. 20 Kentucky 84-68 on Nov. 20, 2007. He defeated the Wildcats as a coach the first time he faced them.

Siddle mentioned the win “briefly” to his squad, but wanted his team to focus on the task at hand.

“It was so long ago, but my message was believe. Anything can happen and little Gardner-Webb came in here back in 2007 and we had the same outcome,” he said. “I think they understood the message I was trying to get across to them.”