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Griffs freshman Malik Johnson passes test vs. Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Canisius College’s Malik Johnson never will forget the first start of his college basketball career.

The 5-foot-10 Richmond, Va., product became the first true freshman to start a season-opener for the Golden Griffs since Brian Dux in 1998. And he performed well against the No. 2-ranked team in the country.

Johnson played 30 minutes and made just two turnovers in Canisius’ 93-69 loss to the Wildcats.

“To be honest, I really wasn’t nervous for some reason,” Johnson said. “I had a conversation with my dad yesterday, and I told him I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited to get out there and play.”

Johnson scored six points. He only had one assist. But he had no problem getting the ball up court and running the offense while being defensed at various times by three McDonald’s All-America guards for Kentucky. He would have had more assists if Kentucky didn't block and alter so many shots.

“I kind of pride myself on taking care of the ball,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, I look at those guys as regular basketball players who I should be out there playing with. I don’t look at them like McDonald’s All-Americans. I just go out there and play the game.”

About 4 minutes into the game Canisius forward picked up an offensive foul in the backcourt trying to set a screen on Johnson’s defender.

“Right after that we said we don’t need to help him,” Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon said. “He was fine bringing it up. That’s really comforting to have.”

Johnson was a two-sport star at Blue Ridge High School in Richmond. He led his basketball team to a 45-8 record his last two seasons and two straight appearances in state championship games. They won one and lost one. He also was a star football player as a running back receiver and defensive back. He made first-team all-Central Virginia. One of Johnson’s brothers, Robert, is a junior guard for the Indiana University basketball team.

“He’s got some football temperament,” Witherspoon said. “I’ve been telling people all fall, he won’t back down. He’s going to come at you the same way every day.”

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: Attendance was 22,009 at Rupp Arena. It was Kentucky’s 38th straight win at home. The Cats improved to 63-1 at home vs. non-ranked teams under coach John 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.

Email: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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