LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — When Quade Green announced he was leaving earlier this week, Kentucky lost its top 3-point threat. Freshman Keldon Johnson picked up the slack.
The Kentucky freshman guard scored 24 points, including five 3-pointers in the first half, and No. 19 Kentucky beat Utah 88-61.
“I had some great practices this week,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to take what I can do in practice into the game.”
Johnson made a career-high six shots from long range on seven attempts as Kentucky made a season-high 12 3-pointers against the Utes. Johnson was instrumental during the first half, making his first five attempts from long range, including three straight during a 28-9 run by the Wildcats that turned the momentum in Kentucky’s favor for the remainder of the game.
“I thought was a big storyline with the game,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.
For Johnson, the performance was a follow-up to his outing in last week’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden. Johnson made a half-court trey at the buzzer that sent the game into overtime.
“I’m not afraid to take a big shot or step up in big moments,” said Johnson. “I’m shooting with confidence. That’s the main thing — my teammates have been just telling me to keep shooting. After I hit the first one, I knew it was going to be a good day.”
Tyler Herro scored 17 points, Reid Travis added 16 and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 10 for the Wildcats, who improved to 8-2 on the season.
In its first game without Green, the Wildcats made 12 shots from long range, with four players making two or more treys. Johnson provided most of the scoring from long range, but Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker added two each. It was Baker who put the finishing touches on the performance with back-to-back treys in the final two minutes.
Calipari insists he wants the Wildcats to attempt at least 23 long-range jumpers per game. Kentucky launched 21 from behind the arc against the Utes and made more than half of them count.
“I’ve been telling them I want to shoot between 20 and 23 threes a game. If we shoot 30, we will lose the game,” he said. “Historically, if you go back over my career, of 30-some years, if we shoot 30, my team loses.
“We want to get to the foul line, we want two-point baskets and we want to offensive rebound. Hard to offensive rebound, miss threes, because they are bouncing everywhere. But you know, we shot the ball pretty well today.”
Calipari also liked his team’s unselfishness on offense and said the Wildcats were “willing passers.” The Wildcats had 13 assists and scored 34 points in transition off 12 Utah turnovers.
“We’re making that pass ahead,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have a shot, give it up. As we become willing passers, we will have more open shots. I’m comfortable with the offense flowing through me. I know every night is not necessarily going to be my night or on fire. I make a lot of plays and will get my teammates involved if I don’t have anything.”
Johnson said the Wildcats are starting to grasp the importance of sharing and developing more chemistry on offense.
“We’re taking it one step at a time and that’s the main thing,” Johnson said. “We’re making strides and getting better each and every game.”
The 1992-93 Kentucky team that finished 30-4 and lost to eventual runner-up Michigan 81-78 in the 1993 Final Four was honored during halftime. Several members of the team were in attendance, including Jared Prickett, a freshman at the time who also played on the national championship squad three years later.
"It could have ended up a different story, but things happen for a reason," Prickett said. "It was a great experience for me."
Calipari reached out to former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino ahead of the reunion.
“He was with family and he had things going on,” he said. “But you know, I just said, "Look, you need to get up here." They will be respectful here, and you know, what that program did to change this back, you know, I mean, we should recognize it. He may be mad he went to coach at Louisville. So what? When he was here and when we needed this program on a different track, he put it, and that group -- and I thanked that group last night: "You guys got this thing back going, you guys did."
Calipari added Pitino will be welcomed if he decides to attend a game at Rupp Arena in the future.
“He deserves to be able to, you know, get the respect from what he did here, and I think our fans would be great,” he said. “You know, he may not think that, but I'm convinced that if he came back, that the fans would be great to him.”
Utah became the first team to outrebound the Wildcats this season and held a 31-23 edge on the glass.
“I was really proud of our guys’ ability to rebound,” he said. “Maybe there weren’t as many offensive rebounds for Kentucky because they made enough of their perimeter shots. Regardless, that’s been a focal point for us and to outrebound them by eight on the game, I thought was something that we can hang our hat on. We just have a lot of different areas to improve.”
Utah limited Kentucky to just seven offensive rebounds, but Kentucky countered by shooting 58 percent from the field.
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. North Carolina, 5:15 p.m., Saturday at Chicago. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.