LEXINGTON, Ky. — Oscar Tshiebwe had 24 points and 14 rebounds, Jacob Toppin added a career-high 24 points and No. 19 Kentucky shot a season-best 60% to dominate rival Louisville 86-63 on Saturday.
The battle for Bluegrass bragging rights resumed after a one-year pause with the Wildcats (9-4) jumping out quickly and surviving a couple of rallies by the Cardinals (2-12). Kentucky sorely needed a rebound game after dropping two of three, including its Southeastern Conference opener on Wednesday at Missouri, and responded by making nine of its first 12 attempts and finishing 33 of 55 from the floor.
Pretty impressive improvement for a team that entered the contest shooting 46% and just under 40% from behind the arc. The Wildcats outscored Louisville 46-34 in the paint and 20-12 on second chances, aggression that had been lacking in some of their bigger games.
Toppin, who went scoreless in 12 1/2 minutes off the bench at Missouri, started and made 10 of 15 with seven rebounds. The senior forward had 15 points by halftime and surpassed his previous scoring high of 20 midway through the second half.
“We played team basketball and whoever is open is going to shoot the ball,” Toppin said. “Obviously, my teammates got into a rhythm of finding me in the middle of the floor and I just executed. My teammates found me, and thankful to them for that.”
Tshiebwe added, “That’s the Jacob we know.”
Tshiebwe had his seventh double-double this season by halftime and came up one rebound shy of his fourth 20/15 effort this season. Last year’s consensus national player of the year was 10 of 13 shooting to offset missing 5 of 9 free throws.
Cason Wallace added 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
El Ellis had 23 points for Louisville, which dropped its third in a row and failed to give first-year coach Kenny Payne a victory against the team he worked for 10 years as an assistant under John Calipari.
But it was a homecoming nonetheless. Payne and Calipari hugged and smiled at midcourt before player introductions. More hugs followed as Payne went down the Wildcats bench to greet other assistants and players and was applauded by the expectedly blue-clad crowd of 20,934 at Rupp Arena.
“I appreciate it,” Payne said. “I respect Kentucky and I loved it here. To have them welcome me was great, but – I’ve said this over and over again – this isn’t about me. This is about these young men.”
Kentucky took off from there, though Louisville mounted a small run to get within 45-37 with 18:32 remaining in the game. That was the closest the Cardinals got as the Wildcats led by 27 with just over three minutes left.
“You have to be able to sustain their runs and lock in and focus to go on a run of your own,” Ellis said. “When times get tough, we have to come together more and continue to fight.”
Brandon Huntley-Hatfield added 10 points and Mike James eight for Louisville.
Toppin entered the game shooting 5 of 20 over his previous four contests but was encouraged by one-on-one discussions with Calipari before and after the Missouri loss. Those talks included some hugs and assurance that he would start, which he did ahead of Lance Ware.
“I had a lot of support from my teammates and my coaching staff and it just feels good to get back to my old self mentally and physically,” Toppin said.
THE BIG PICTURE
Louisville: The Cardinals shot 47% and seemed intent on making it a game early in the second half. But they couldn’t slow Toppin or Tshiebwe, and things quickly slipped away in the final 10 minutes. They committed 15 turnovers that led to 19 Kentucky points and were outrebounded 33-20.
“I was disappointed in our lack of physicality,” Payne said. “We worked the last three days on rebounding. At times it looked like he reacted twice before we reacted once.”
Kentucky: With nowhere to go but up after Missouri overwhelmed them, the Wildcats started fast and hot from the field and stayed on the gas. Toppin’s performance was long overdue and complemented Tshiebwe well. Free throws remain a concern as they made 16 of 25.
Kentucky: Hosts LSU on Tuesday night to resume SEC play
Louisville: Hosts Syracuse on Tuesday night in ACC play