Kentucky outlasts ACU in NCAA Tourney

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JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Keldon Johnson scored 25 points and Reid Travis added 18 and nine rebounds for Kentucky in a 79-44 defeat of Abilene Christian University on Thursday night, ending the Southland Conference champion’s storybook season in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional in VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. 
 
The matchup of two Wildcat programs – No. 2 seed Kentucky in its 58thNCAA Tournament and No. 15 seed ACU in its first – captured the attention of fans nationwide, but the taller team from Lexington stifled Abilene Christian by building a 15-point lead early in the game and extending it to 26 (39-13) by the end of the first half.
 
ACU shot just 19 percent in the first half (5 for 26), including just 2 for 11 from 3-point range (18.2 percent). The Wildcats gave up 36 points either in the paint (26 points) or off turnovers (10) in the first half and never got into any kind of rhythm. 
 
“Kentucky is all that,” ACU head coach Joe Golding said. “They’re really, really good; the best team we’ve played this year, along with Texas Tech. I’m proud of our guys. They didn’t quit; they kept playing and playing hard. They represented our university and our city in a first-class manner and they’ve done that all year.”
 
UK was without leading scorer PJ Armstrong, who missed the game, wearing a hard cast on his sprained foot. But the blue bloods of college basketball, who have won eight national titles but none since 2012, didn’t miss him. Kentucky out-rebounded ACU 44-17, shot 60 percent from the floor in the first half (54 percent for the game) and never allowed ACU to breathe.
 
ACU didn’t have an answer for Kentucky’s size and length inside and UK continually pounded the ball inside against ACU.  
 
“We thought we had an advantage there (inside) mainly because of our size and Reid (Travis) and his strength,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “We said that if we were going to beat those guys we had to have separation in the rebounding category, and we did that.”
 
 
ACU’s year ended at 27-7, but the Southland’s representative in March Madness tied a school record for wins in a season, matching the 27-5 mark of its 1979-80 squad that advanced to the NAIA Division I postseason tournament. 
 
Kentucky (28-6) moves on to face the winner of Wofford and Seton Hall, the second game tonight in this regional. Calipari’s team righted its ship after an 82-78 loss last week to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference semifinals. 
 
Despite 3,500 of its fans cheering loudly from a Watch Party back home in Moody Coliseum, ACU started the game colder than a blue norther from the Texas Panhandle, shooting just 5 of 26 from the field in the first half. Jaren Lewis’ six points led ACU in the opening frame, while Travis and Tyler Herro had 12 each to pace UK. 
 
The taller Kentucky squad took advantage of its height in the early going, building a 6-0 lead at the 17:53 mark, then began pressing ACU ball handlers, forcing mistakes and pressuring shooters. Farquahar made ACU’s first points of the tournament when he nailed a 3-pointer to cut an 8-0 UK lead to 8-3, but then he picked up his second foul not long afterward.
 
At one point, first-half futility from the field reached single-digits in shooting – a bit more than 8 percent while Kentucky was red hot at more than 61 percent. 
 
A Jaylen Franklin layup and 3-pointer from Lewis cut Kentucky’s lead to 22-10 with 9:58 left, but Calipari’s team always answered back, and more, by working the ball into the paint, where its advantage showed most. Kentucky attempted only three treys in the first half, while ACU launched 11.
 
Kentucky grew its lead to 35 on a free throw from Nick Richards with 6:55 left in the second half, capping an 8-0 run. 
 
Golding’s team showed considerable spunk in the second half – scoring just nine points less than Kentucky – but simply was outmatched by its SEC opponent and could never draw closer than 23 points after halftime. 
 
ACU was led by senior forward Lewis, who scored 17 points and grabbed five rebounds. A pair of guards, senior Franklin and Payten Ricks, added eight points each. 
 
ACU had been averaging close to 40 percent shooting from behind the arc for the season, but managed to hit just five of 23 tonight. Kentucky was good on 4 of its 14 and outrebounded Abilene Christian 44-17. ACU shot just 32.1 percent from the field (17 of 53) and made only half of its free throws (5 of 10).  

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