LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t mind a closer-than-expected 73-69 win over Vermont Sunday.
“You cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to play good teams. I didn’t realize how good (Vermont) was until I watched the tape. Then I was like, ‘who scheduled this game? This is ridiculous.’ They just do an unbelievable job.”
The Wildcats, playing their second game in three days to open the season, missed seven of their last eight field goals and held off a late surge by the Catamounts. Trailing 72-69, Vermont missed two 3-pointers in the final 30 seconds. Washington made one of two free throws with less than a second left for the final margin.
The Wildcats (2-0) will take on the Jayhawks (1-0) in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in Chicago. Kansas opened the season with a 92-56 rout of Tennessee State Friday night. The Wildcats defeated Utah Valley 73-63 Friday night in their season opener.
Kentucky trailed by 12 in a season-opening win over Utah Valley in the first half, but the Wildcats got off to a better start against the Catamounts and made five of their first nine shots and never trailed after Vermont scored the first basket of the contest.
Diallo led the Wildcats with 18 points in the opener and picked off where he left off against the Catamounts. Diallo finished with 16 points and scored 13 of those in the first half. Diallo’s 3-pointer, Kentucky’s first of the contest, gave the Wildcats a 36-24 lead at the break.
P.J. Washington led Kentucky with a career-high 16 points. Washington scored nine points in the first half and wasn’t surprised by Vermont’s late surge.
“They started making shots,” Washington said. “We knew they were good. We just had to buckle down and play defense (at the end).”
Washington and Diallo combined for nine of Kentucky’s 14 field goals in the opening half. Quade Green had 15 and Kevin Knox finished with 11.
“We came through and got the win,” Green said. “Everybody is a winner. We like to win and we came out with the win.”
Vermont, which finished 29-6 last season and hadn’t lost a regular-season game since an 81-69 setback to Butler last December, was led by Trae Bell-Haynes with 16 points. Anthony Lamb scored 15, Drew Urquhart had 13 and Ernie Duncan added 10.
“I’m so excited about this game because we’re going to learn about ourselves,” Calipari said. “We’re going to learn about individuals, what they’re capable of and maybe what they’re not capable of. And we’re going to learn. You’re going to learn against an NCAA Tournament team that is going to beat a lot of people this year and I thought in the first half we were really good. In the second half not quite as good. Shot 60 percent in the second half.”
Calipari also is anxious for his team’s matchup against Kansas Tuesday.
“They will play more mush mouth,” he said. “They will play fast, bang bang, shoot threes and their guard play’s unbelievable. He’s got a really good team. And they’re veterans, he’s got veterans on that team that have been there and done that and so it will be a hard game for us to win. But it’s another game, let’s see, neutral floor, Top-5 team, where are we, they’re top 4, 3, whatever they are, No. 1 in the country, whatever they are. Where is a freshman team, playing on the road, against a team like that, where are we now.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the starting point guard in the season opener, but Quade Green started in place of Gilgeous-Alexander and finished with four points. Green led the team with four assists and scored five straight at one point in the second half.
Vermont fell to 0-15 against Southeastern Conference teams. Overall, the Catamounts are 0-3 against Florida, 0-2 against Georgia and Vanderbilt. Kentucky was Vermont’s first contest against a ranked opponent since 2006. The Catamounts won 21 straight games last season before dropping an 80-70 setback to Purdue in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky: The Wildcats take on No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic on Tuesday.
Vermont: The Catamounts take on Bradley in the Islands of Bahamas Classic on Friday.