LEXINGTON, Ky. – Canisius College hung with No. 2-ranked Kentucky for a half Sunday night.
The Golden Griffins played better than expected before losing by a predictable margin, 93-69, in the debut game for new coach Reggie Witherspoon.
Expectations are low for Canisius, which was picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
So a near-capacity crowd at famed Rupp Arena didn’t quite know how to respond for most of the first 20 minutes.
The Griffs got 10 points in the first nine minutes from junior guard Kassius Robertson and took advantage of cold early shooting by the Wildcats.
Canisius held a 29-23 lead with 5:40 left after senior forward Phil Valenti got a back-court steal and converted a layup.
But Kentucky used a 13-2 run over the final three minutes of the half to take a 44-35 lead into intermission.
In the second half, Kentucky’s size and athleticism prevailed.
Robertson led the Griffs with 16 points.
Size mismatch: As expected, Kentucky asserted its giant size advantage. The Kats were 14 of 20 from the foul line in the first half. Canisius did not get to the foul line once in the first 20 minutes.
On point: Point guard Malik Johnson became the first true freshman to start an opener for the Griffs since Brian Dux in 1998.
Johnson was a two-sport star at Blue Ridge High School in Richmond, Va. He led his basketball team to a 45-8 record and one state championship his last two seasons. He scored 18 touchdowns, made 11 interceptions for the football team his senior year. One of Johnson’s brothers, Robert, is a junior guard for the Indiana University basketball team.
Bam: Kentucky’s top big-man recruit, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, earned his nickname before age 2 when he picked up a coffee table while watching the Flintstones.
Ranked facts: It was Canisius’ first game against a nationally ranked team since losing to No. 21 UNLV, 89-74, on Dec. 22, 2012. . . . It was the fifth time Canisius faced the No. 2-ranked team in the country. Canisius won one of those meetings – the famed 79-78 four-overtime win over North Carolina State in the 1956 NCAA Tournament. . . . It was the Griffs’ first season-opener against a ranked school since 1992, when they faced No. 4 Duke. . . . It was the third all-time meeting between Canisius and Kengucky. The first was in Rupp Arena on Jan. 9, 1997, when Kentucky won, 68-45. Kentucky played at KeyBank Center the next year and beat the Griffs, 81-54. . . . This is the sixth straight season Kentucky has opened in the top three in the nation.
NBA facts: Kentucky has 24 former players on NBA rosters. Kentucky has had four No. 1 overall picks since 2008 (Derrick Rose, John Wall, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns).
Reload: Five of Kentucky’s six freshman recruits were rated among the top 25 high school players in the nation.
In the house: It was Kentucky’s 38th straight win at home. The Cats improved to 63-1 at home vs. non-ranked teams under Calipari.
Up next: Canisius plays at Cleveland State at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The Griffs took a bus from Buffalo to Lexington and stayed overnight Friday in Ohio. They planned to bus from Lexington to Cleveland Monday. The Griffs’ first home game is Nov. 21 vs. Tennessee-Martin. Kentucky plays No. 12 Michigan State Monday in Madison Square Garden.