Cats find stop­per in time to de­feat Spar­tans

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JERRY TIP­TON

With UNC Greens­boro guard Fran­cis Alonso hit­ting ev­ery shot he took, Ken­tucky Coach John Cali­pari and staff re­duced Sat­ur­day’s game to a stark fork in the bas­ket­ball road.

“We can ei­ther let the kid get 60 or put Ash­ton (Ha­gans) on him,” Cali­pari said of the in-game strate­giz­ing by UK’s brain trust.

Ken­tucky chose the lat­ter. Ken­tucky won 78-61. It was al­most that sim­ple.

“Ash­ton made him work to get shots, and run,” Cali­pari said. “And all of a sud­den you’re into their legs. They had to take him out a few times.”

Alonso, a se­nior guard from Malaga, Spain, out­played UK’s mul­ti­star prod­ucts of the United States re­cruit­ing process. His 22 points helped UNC Greens­boro lead for much of the first 30 min­utes and had to make fans of re­cruit­ing won­der how the re­cruit­ing an­a­lysts in Spain say “star” in their rat­ings (they say la es­trella).

Ken­tucky, which is ranked No. 10, im­proved fin­ish­ing school work and rest­ing their bod­ies af­ter a long sea­son.

But things are about to get more hec­tic with the Cats learn­ing their bowl des­ti­na­tion and up­com­ing op­po­nent for what is likely to be their first New Year’s Day Bowl in 20 years.

Nearly ev­ery na­tional pro­jec­tion has Ken­tucky headed to the Cit­rus Bowl — ver­sus vary­ing op­po­nents — on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. in Or­lando, Fla.

The Cit­rus Bowl gets the first pick of South­east­ern Con­fer­ence schools that don’t make the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off and are not se­lected by the play­off com­mit­tee for one of the four re­main­ing New Year’s Six bowl games. UK is No. 15 in the most re­cent play­off rank­ings.

Bowl as­sign­ments will be made of­fi­cial Sun­day as part of a four-hour show on ESPN start­ing at noon. Ken­tucky prob­a­bly will find out where it is headed and who it will face some­time be­tween 3 and 6 p.m.

Once the des­ti­na­tion and op­po­nent are set­tled,

to 7-1 by pulling away in the se­cond half. UK lim­ited UNC Greens­boro to one bas­ket for more than eight min­utes.

Alonso went score­less the fi­nal 16:10 as Ha­gans made a claim as UK’s de­fen­sive stop­per. Alonso missed his fi­nal five shots (two from three­p­oint range).

“He just takes a lot of pride in de­fense,” team­mate Reid Travis said of Ha­gans.

When asked to di­vulge the se­cret to Ha­gans’ ef­fec­tive­ness as a de­fender, Tyler Herro said, “I don’t think it’s a se­cret any more. He’s one of the best de­fend­ers in the coun­try. We’ve been say­ing that for a while now. He showed it again tonight.”

Alonso, an all-South­ern Con­fer­ence se­lec­tion last sea­son, was no se­cret ei­ther. He came into the game as UNC Greens­boro’s lead­ing scorer (19.0 points per game) and a player shoot­ing with 46.2-per­cent ac­cu­racy from three-point range.

For the first time since the opener against Duke, Ken­tucky trailed at half­time. The 40-37 deficit at in­ter­mis­sion paled next to the 59-42 avalanche Duke in­flicted on UK. But Alonso looked ca­pa­ble of lead­ing UNC Greens­boro to vic­tory. He had a hand in 23 of UNC Greens­boro’s 40 points. He scored 19 points and had two as­sists.

“I think he can shoot it as good as any­body in col­lege bas­ket­ball,” UNC Greens­boro Coach Wes Miller said of Alonso be­fore the game.

Ken­tucky went through sev­eral de­fend­ers try­ing to con­tain Alonso. Kel­don John­son started on Alonso. That didn’t last long. Af­ter Alonso drove to a score and then hit a three­p­ointer on the Spar­tans’ first two pos­ses­sions, a change seemed im­mi­nent.

“We were wrong,” Cali­pari said of start­ing John­son on Alonso. “No, he was not sup­posed to start on him. And we were down 5-0 be­cause we put the wrong guy on him in the locker room. I’m, like, why is Kel­don guard­ing this guy? Be­cause I knew who was sup­posed to be guard­ing him.

“Well, prior to the game, some­body said you’re guard­ing him . ... I’m, like, wait a minute. We just gave up five points be­cause we have the wrong guy on him? You’ve got to be kid­ding me. That’s lit­er­ally what hap­pened.”

Herro, who said af­ter­ward that he de­fended the Alonso stand-in dur­ing the pre-game shootaround, switched onto Alonso. That failed, too. Alonso scored UNC Greens­boro’s first 11 points.

En­ter Ha­gans. The fresh­man from Cartersville, Ga., made a strong case for be­ing UK’s de­fen­sive stop­per on the perime­ter. He blocked Alonso’s funky one­footed fade-away from the foul line area. That was the only shot Alonso missed in a 5-for-6 shoot­ing half (four of four from three-point range).

Late in the half, Alonso fur­ther riled UK fans when he got a foul call by lean­ing into Quade

Green on an un­like­ly­look­ing three-point shot. The foul call on Green sparked boos from the crowd.

Ken­tucky did not pull away early in the se­cond half. A mem­o­rable 80foot drive by Ha­gans put UK ahead 56-55 with 10:28 left. It was UK’s first lead since the 2:02 mark of the first half.

Ha­gans changed di­rec­tion twice en route to the bas­ket, then made a layup while be­ing fouled.

The lead lasted 24 sec­onds. Nei­ther team seemed likely to pull away this day. But with Alonso hol­stered, Ken­tucky pulled away by hold­ing UNC Greens­boro with­out a point in the fi­nal 3:23 and to just three bas­kets in the fi­nal 13:05.

“What’s just been proven is if an­other team gets go­ing with an in­di­vid­ual player, what are we go­ing to do as a team?” Cali­pari said. “We’re putting Ash­ton on him.”

ALEX SLITZ [email protected]­ald-leader.com

Ken­tucky’s Ash­ton Ha­gans guards UNC Greens­boro’s Isa­iah Miller dur­ing Sat­ur­day’s game in Lex­ing­ton.

ALEX SLITZ [email protected]­ald-leader.com

Ken­tucky guard Tyler Herro shoots for three points over UNC Greens­boro de­fend­ers dur­ing their game Sat­ur­day at Rupp Arena in Lex­ing­ton.

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