Two steps forward and one step back. That was the theme on Wednesday night as the Kentucky Wildcats held off the Florida A&M Rattlers 88-68 at Rupp Arena.
With a new starting lineup that included Chris Livingston and Lance Ware, the Wildcats took a big step forward on the offensive end, shooting 52.5% from the field on 31-of-59 shooting. The Wildcats also hit 13-of-23 three-pointers (56.5%).
However, a shaky defensive effort allowed one of the worst teams in all of college basketball to cut the lead to seven points (69-62) with six minutes left in regulation as Kentucky went on a 13-2 run over the final 3:46 to seal the win.
Florida A&M came into the game ranked No. 358 by KenPom among 363 Division I basketball programs. The Rattlers were listed as a 38.5 point underdog at tipoff.
Kentucky was led by freshman guard Cason Wallace with a career-high 27 points and finished one short of a double-double with nine assists. Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 14 points, while CJ Fredrick and Antonio Reeves added 12 and 10 points, respectively.
No. 19th-ranked Kentucky improves to 8-2 and will open SEC play at Missouri next Wednesday before hosting rival Louisville on New Year’s Eve.
Here are some of the key performers from Wednesday night’s win, and a few players that are trending the wrong direction.
Cason Wallace: The freshman guard was outstanding in the win, running the half-court offense and finding scoring opportunities in transition. He has great floor vision and has quickly become Kentucky’s “Go-To-Guy” during crunch time, along with Tshiebwe who has been dominant in the low post. Most importantly, Wallace has proven that he can take the keys to the offense at any time and deliver when needed. The only big issue remains inconsistent free throw shooting as he’s missed too many foul shots in late game situations. He is currently 12-of-22 from the line (54.5%).
CJ Fredrick: The Iowa transfer finally found his shooting stroke, hitting four three-pointers to finish with 12 points. Unfortunately, Fredrick has struggled against good teams and played sparingly in the recent loss to UCLA. However, he was one of Kentucky’s best defenders on Wednesday and gives the Wildcats added space on the offensive end, especially when he’s on the floor with fellow sharp-shooter Antonio Reeves, who also looked more comfortable from behind the arc on Wednesday night.
Ugonna Onyenso: The 7-foot center finished with four points and five rebounds in nine minutes of play and has quickly become a fan favorite at Rupp Arena. The freshman big man has turned heads early in the season as a rim protector who can block shots and run the floor in transition. His offensive skills are still raw, but he can still be an impact player in those games that are less physical. Based on his performance against Florida A&M, Ware will most likely remain in the starting lineup due to his fight and toughness, but you can bet that Onyenso will get opportunities in the right situations.
Sahvir Wheeler: Wheeler played just 20 minutes as Wallace ran the point for most of the night to spark the Kentucky offense. Despite averaging an SEC-best 6.4 assists per game, the veteran guard scored just five points on 2-for-6 shooting and has been a liability as a three-point shooter this season. The Wildcats need the Wheeler-Wallace combination at its very best this season to make a deep run in conference play.
Oh, and this...
Florida A&M coach Robert McCullum: "We thought they were more effective when (Sahvir) Wheeler wasn't in the game."— Jack Pilgrim (@JackPilgrimKSR) December 22, 2022
Daimion Collins: Playing an undersized Florida A&M team should have been the perfect opportunity for Daimion Collins to get some extended playing time and gain some confidence. However, the Texas native played just five minutes on Wednesday and did not have a shot attempt as he continues to look lost on the offensive end. Collins has shown great promise throughout his career in a Kentucky uniform and can still be a difference-maker once he finds his footing after a heartbreaking start to the season. You can bet that Wildcat fans will continue to root for Collins on the comeback trail.
Jacob Toppin: After losing his starting spot to freshman Chris Livingston, Toppin had four points and a handful of rebounds in 19 minutes of action. As the most athletic player on the team, the Rhode Island transfer has tremendous upside and can still have a breakout season once things begin to click offensively. However, he has to go back to his short-range jumper and find ways to get rebounds and easy stick backs. There’s simply no reason for Toppin to play too deep on the perimeter looking for three-point shots as he’s much better around the basket as a mid-range scorer.
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