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Forgettable Win as UK Moves On to Face Undefeated Wichita State

ST. LOUIS — The NCAA Tournament does funny things to people, not that Kentucky’s players knew much about that before Friday. Seven of the eight players that got in the game for the No. 8 Wildcats in their 56-49 win over No. 9 Kansas State had never played on an NCAA Tournament team, and the eighth, Jarrod Polson, played 22 seconds in a blowout win in the 2012 national championship team’s first game against No. 16 Western Kentucky.

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Alex Poythress woke up early Friday and hardly knew what to do with himself with a long day before a tipoff around 9 p.m. local time.

“It was incredible. It was a great experience, great game, great atmosphere,” he said. “It’s the NCAA Tournament. It’s what you dreamed of doing when you’re a little kid, watching in high school, watching in middle school—just watching the games. It’s something you always wanted to do.”

This tournament is addictive because of its heightened flair, but not every game is remembered. Friday’s game won’t be, either passively forgotten over time or actively blocked out because its slow pace, poor execution even at the dirge at which it was played and relatively low emotional cache attached to it. It was the NCAA Tournament, but it wasn’t a familiar opponent, a particularly notable team loaded with talent or anything like that. Kansas State was as anonymous an opponent as any major conference could have offered, and the way it played offense, perhaps anonymity was the way to go.

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Kansas State finished 19 of 53 from the floor, but that number doesn’t properly reflect the futility of its second half. From the 15-minute mark to the one-minute mark in the second half, Kansas State was 2 of 13 from the floor. In those 18 possessions, the Wildcats had one offensive rebound, four turnovers (including three straight at one point) and eight points.

Kentucky’s defense had a lot to do with it—those turnovers were forced, and that lack of offensive rebounding had a lot to do with how active Kentucky was on the glass, and Willie Cauley-Stein seemed to be altering every shot that went up in his general area—but it’s unclear how much. Kansas State had not been an efficient offensive team all season, and it wasn’t going to start down that road Friday when it was outsized as much as it was.

Still, considering that nerves almost caused a 76-percent foul shooter to airball a free throw before the opening tip*, Kentucky was going to take its win any way it could get it: stolen, earned or handed over.

“I was proud of them. It was really fun to start the game, we had the two free throws, and I said to Aaron, ‘You or Andrew, whichever one of you two wants to shoot because I can’t really tell you apart, so just tell me who wants to shoot it,’ ” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And he says—Andrew—‘I’ll shoot it.’ And he shoots the first one and almost shot an airball, and we bust out laughing.”

It was a long day, Poythress said, but long days with good endings are fine, he said. Kentucky didn’t play its best, but it didn’t have to.

“We live to see another day,” he said. “We’re playing basketball. We’ve got another game, trying to take care of business.”

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington who is in St. Louis. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.