No. 7 Kentucky leads big before holding off Harvard 79-70
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Just as No. 7 Kentucky seemed headed toward blowing out another opponent, the Wildcats suddenly lost the focus and accuracy that had Harvard on the brink.
The pesky Crimson took advantage down the stretch to get within single digits, only lacking enough time to make things even tenser against a team still learning that a 20-point lead should be a starting point toward finishing off games.
"We have to be able to put our foot on their throats and get good plays and good shots and not try to turn into a selfish team," freshman forward Kevin Knox said after scoring 20 points in Kentucky's 79-70 victory Saturday over the Crimson. "I think that's what we do when we start to get up, people start trying to get their own. Next thing, they're (only) down eight."
Officially, Harvard's deficit was nine after Seth Towns' 3-pointer with 22 seconds left capped an 18-7 closing run after trailing 72-52 midway through the second half. Kentucky (7-1) ran out the clock, which seemed logical considering it missed seven of its final eight shots and went without a field goal for the final 2:31.
"Give Harvard credit," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "They shot the ball. (Coach Tommy) Amaker did a great job of putting his people in positions. It was another good game for us to play where a team's not just going to give us a win. This team needs that."
Before that, the Wildcats appeared to show hints of following up Sunday's 107-73 pummeling of Illinois-Chicago with another big game.
Hamidou Diallo added 19 points as Kentucky used a 13-0 run over 2:42 for a lead that seemed safe during a game when things were mostly clicking on both ends. The Wildcats returned from a break to shoot well for most of the game and lead the Ivy League Crimson throughout.
It wasn't easy, and the Wildcats needed that initial accuracy to counter Harvard's 12 3-pointers — including six by sophomore forward Towns (25 points) — that kept the Crimson within reach.
"They found me for a lot of open shots," said Towns, who was 8 of 14 from the field and missed just once from long range. Harvard shot 37 percent but was 12 of 28 from behind the arc.
"Tonight I was just able to get them in. A lot of them came from assists, and when we do that and move the ball really well is when we play our best. That showed a lot today, but I give credits to my teammates for finding me."
"I was pleased with how Seth came off the bench for us and gave us a shot in the arm," Amaker said.
Kentucky made three of four free throws in the final minutes to win the first meeting between the schools and earn its fifth straight victory. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 12 points for the Wildcats, who shot 46 percent but were just 2 of 14 from long range.
Harvard: Just as critical as making all those 3s was a bench that outscored Kentucky 44-26. The Crimson faced a huge hurdle keeping up with the Wildcats' length and speed, factors that made the difference in allowing Kentucky to hold on. Danilo Djuricic had 10 points.
"I thought we were putting things together for a while to kind of keep it interesting and I thought our kids competed," Amaker said, "but their length and size on the backboard and not having some of our better players inside and out with Chris Lewis and Bryce Aiken not having really good offensive games certainly hurt us."
Kentucky: The Wildcats had a tough task following a 34-point win over Illinois-Chicago but seemed capable of handling it in never trailing. But they struggled defending the Crimson from the outside, allowing a big lead to be cut down in the final minutes. The Wildcats owned the paint 42-20 and outscored Harvard 24-3 off 15 turnovers but barely won the rebounding battle 37-36.
RIGHT ON CUE
Fire alarms went off briefly inside Rupp Arena early in the second half, but spectators didn't miss a beat. As the alarm buzzed in three-beat increments, a chant of "Go! Big! Blue!" began and within a moment it was over.
Actress Ashley Judd, a big Kentucky fan, was among 22,922.
Harvard hosts Fordham on Wednesday.
Kentucky enters final exams before facing Monmouth on Dec. 9 at Madison Square Garden.