GREENSBORO, N.C. – Oscar Tshiebwe kept battling for position, pushing his way to daylight and grabbing seemingly every loose rebound with a rugged relentlessness.
No one was going to stop him, either.
When it was over, the two-time Associated Press All-American had turned in the best rebounding performance in the NCAA Tournament in nearly a half-century – and Kentucky was free to move past last year’s one-and-done showing.
Tshiebwe pulled down 25 rebounds and Antonio Reeves scored 22 points, helping the Wildcats beat Providence 61-53 in Friday night’s first round.
Tshiebwe’s rebounding output represented the most in any tournament game since 1977. Eleven of his rebounds came on the offensive glass – a big factor in the sixth-seeded Wildcats (22-11) staying in control as both offenses grinded to a halt after halftime.
“I told (my teammates), I said, ‘This year we come in and fight, last year doesn’t matter anymore,'” said Tshiebwe, who entered as the nation’s leading rebounder at 13.1 per game.
The “last year,” of course, was the shocking first-round exit against 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s that had hung over the program all season. Now the Wildcats are moving on to face the Montana State-Kansas State winner Sunday in the East Region.
“Yeah, it was a big relief obviously,” forward Jacob Toppin said.
When the horn sounded, guard Cason Wallace let out a scream before giving a chest bump to Reaves. And Tshiebwe soon emerged from a postgame TV interview by gleefully skipping his way off toward the locker room.
His rebounding total was the most in the tournament since Michigan’s Phil Hubbard had 26 boards against Detroit Mercy in 1977.
Behind Tshiebwe, Kentucky finished with a 48-31 rebounding advantage, controlling the offensive glass (plus-10) and dominating in second-chance points for an 18-2 edge.
That was vital considering shots weren’t falling; Kentucky shot 36.5% overall but just 7 of 28 (25%) after halftime.
Reeves hit five 3-pointers to lead the offense, while Toppin had his own big game with 18 points. Tshiebwe managed eight points, but he was still an indomitable force that the 11th-seeded Friars (21-12) just couldn’t manage.
“Sometimes you just have an ‘it,’ a la Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “Those guys just have an ‘it’ for it. Some guys have an ‘it’ to score. Some people have an ‘it’ to pass. He has an incredible ‘it,’ an elite ‘it’ to rebound.”
Ed Croswell scored 16 points for Providence, which shot just 36.2% while making 5 of 24 3-pointers. The Friars matched the Wildcats’ second-half troubles, making just 8 of 27 shots (29.6%).
“You can say you wish you could win this game and all that,” Friars guard Jared Bynum said, “but you have to embrace the moment at the end of it.”
Providence: The Friars have been to the NCAAs seven times in the past nine seasons under Cooley, including last year’s Sweet 16 before falling to eventual champion Kansas. But they entered this game just 3-6 in NCAA games under Cooley.
Kentucky: The Wildcats got off to a successful though grinding start to March Madness – and that was good enough for coach John Calipari.
“If in this tournament, winning is a relief, what the heck are you doing here?” he said. “This is joy.”
Tshiebwe came through in a tight game, starting with – what else? – his rebounding.
With Kentucky leading 50-46, he leapt to dunk home Wallace’s missed drive. Minutes later, he came up with a steal, then an offensive rebound off his own miss before feeding Chris Livingston on the other side of the paint for the layup and a 54-46 lead with 2:43 left.
The game marked a reunion between Providence star Bryce Hopkins and the Kentucky program he left behind. Hopkins came in averaging 16.1 points, but finished with just seven on 2-for-9 shooting in a tough night while being chased primarily by Toppin.
Hopkins fought back tears as he made his way through the postgame handshake line with Calipari and former teammates.
The game’s oddest moment came at the foul line.
With 8:36 left before halftime, Providence’s Clifton Moore launched a free throw that hit the rim on the left side and rolled all the way around the inside of the rim before popping out and sitting on the back of the goal.
And then, it just stopped and stayed there.
The 6-foot-9 Toppin stood next to an official under the net looking up at the ball, his hands on his hips, before jumping to tap it loose.
It went down as a miss. Moore made the second.
The upset by 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson against No. 1 seed Purdue in Columbus, Ohio, drew a captivated audience in Greensboro Coliseum for live look-ins being shown on the scoreboard.
During one timeout, with Fairleigh Dickinson up five in the final seconds, fans in Greensboro began chanting “FDU! FDU!” and booing whenever the game was taken off the scoreboard even when Providence-Kentucky had resumed on the court below.