LEXINGTON, Ky. (Press Release) - In 91 years of Stephen F. Austin men's basketball history, no Lumberjack squad had suited up to do battle with a top-five nationally ranked team. That changed on Friday night when the 'Jacks' stepped foot in Rupp Arena in order to test the early-season mettle of #2/4 ranked Kentucky.
Although the result at the end of the night was an 87-64 loss to John Calipari's Wildcats, the tilt began to fill in some of the blanks to the questions being asked about a new-look Stephen F. Austin squad.
In their SFA debuts, Leon Gilmore III finished with a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double, and Isaiah Traylor amassed a team-best 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting. One of the deciding factors, however, happened to be the 28 Lumberjack turnovers that the speedy 'Cats turned into 32 points on the other end.
"I thought we shot a good percentage and rebounded the basketball pretty well, but we gave up a lot of transition points because we had difficulty guarding the rim against their quickness," SFA's head coach Kyle Keller said. Keller, who was making his official debut as the 'Jacks' bench boss, was denied his bid to become the fifth coach of the 12 in SFA history to win his debut.
Billed as the team defined by what they lost from the 2015-16 season, SFA refused to let that play a part in the game and finished with a 36-28 edge on the board against the longer 'Cats. Kentucky shot an even 50-percent (31-of-62) while the 'Jacks countered with a 44-2-percent clip (23-of-52).
Early on, the focus of the game shifted from the 'Cats gang of wunderkind to something that has been somewhat of a rarity on John Calipari's roster - a senior. Forward Derek Willis took command of the game in the painted area, scoring seven of Kentucky's first nine points off of free throws and finishes around the tin.
Even though he would be plagued by foul trouble for nearly the entirety of the 'Jacks' season-opener, sophomore forward TJ Holyfield handed the visitors their only lead of the game when he connected on a wide-open long ball 1:06 into things.
Directly following that triple, however, the 'Jacks' ran headlong into foul trouble which in turn allowed the #2/4 ranked team in the land to enhance its lead. Within the first 6:40, the 'Jacks' had been whistled for 10 total personal foul infractions and the 'Cats took advantage by swishing 10 of their 14 tries at the charity line in the first 20 minutes of action.
Coupled with their interior play, the 'Cats' pushed their advantage to as many as 12 points through the first 10 minutes of SFA's season. The only other time SFA managed to pull within single digits of the 'Cats came during the course of a 5-0 run that began with a hard-driving finish at the tin from junior Isaiah Traylor.
Dallas Cameron closed out the small surge by connecting on a wide-open downtown try from the far wing, making matters 28-20 in favor of UK. De'Aaron Fox put an end to that SFA run with a pull-up jumper and Mychal Mulder finished off a stretch of five-straight Kentucky points courtesy of the team's first three-pointer which made it 33-20 with 6:36 remaining in the half.
A power outage from the field did not make matters easier for SFA either. During the final 5:10 of the first frame, a jumper from Cameron served as the 'Jacks' lone field goal. Meanwhile, the 'Cats put their foot on the gas pedal and employed the speed of one of the nation's best backcourts to gain a greater advantage.
Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe switched on the afterburners and started an 11-5 UK run over the final four minutes of the half by sidestepping a pair of SFA low post defenders.
Showing no fear of the Wildcats or their top-tier crop of student-athletes, Traylor finished off his first half of basketball in an SFA uniform by registering 12 points, but despite that the 'Jacks were staring a 48-32 deficit in the face to start the final frame.
A 7-2 surge by Kentucky greeted Stephen F. Austin in the second half and pushed the home team's edge to 55-34 with 17:24 remaining. Facing off against a more inspired defensive squad of 'Cats, SFA was held to one field goal through a seven-minute stretch in the deciding frame and went only 2-of-10 from long distance in that span.
For the third time in as many seasons, the 'Jacks will be a part of ESPN's College Basketball Tip-Off Marathon on Tuesday. William R. Johnson Coliseum will serve as the backdrop to the 'Jacks' 10:00 a.m. game on ESPN2 against Big South institution Longwood.
Opening statement …
"I think Coach Calipari has the team that is advertised for sure. We like to hang our hats on playing defense and obviously we turned it over as much as we do during a weeks' worth of practice against ourselves. We just handed it to them, and they forced it. You can't simulate their length and quickness on defense. They're going to have a lot fun with their team. I said this to our team, it's amazing. I told them before the game. He makes young kids play old really fast. He a special coach. I know everybody appreciates who he is. He is a special coach. It's a special gift to hold kids accountable, and play defense like that. To get them to buy in and play for the team doesn't happen in these kids' generation with them being coddled like they have been. No disrespect to my guys right here. To play for each other and play defense like that is a special talent. I hope everybody appreciates what he does with those kids because it's really, really good. We appreciate being here. I'm just disappointed in our guys. I thought we shot a good percentage, and I thought we were rebounding pretty well but we just allowed a lot of transition points. It's hard to guard the basket when we aren't there, and that's a credit to them."
On how different Kentucky is from last year …
"You know their length having Bam (Adebayo) inside. I thought Ulis was one of the greatest college point guards ever. He even knew where the referees were, the ball boys were and everybody else on the court. He was unbelievable how he could dominate a game and make others better. I think De'Aaron (Fox) and (Malik) Monk with their speed, quickness and athleticism. I told Briscoe during the game 'dude, you've gotten so much better.' You could guard (Isaiah) Briscoe with your arms behind your back and you can't do that anymore. But those three cats on the perimeter? Phew. You have to guard them. They're just really, really good. Those three guys on the perimeter. (Derek) Willis is the perfect stretch four for their team and then Humphries has gotten better and Bam inside. The other kid who I don't know very well at all. (Wenyen) Gabriel has ten at half. We don't have anyone to guard him. Leon (Gilmore) is our best chance to guard him and he's going back-and-forth. Coach Cal is just toying with us. Him (Gabriel) and Willis both have 20. We don't know who to guard him with, either one of them. The other freshman, big kid, inside who looks like he's about 7-2, I mean, he's going to be so good. He doesn't know who to play. He's just picking. I guess who ever is the best at shootaround today, that's who he plays. He's got so many to choose from."
On Adebayo being in foul trouble …
"I didn't even realize he was in foul trouble. I knew our big kid inside, (TJ) Holyfield, couldn't play, and that really affected us. I don't try to coach another team, I'm not that good. I just try to focus on what we can do for our team and do the best I can for our kids because I know they try really really hard and I appreciate their effort. Like I said, Willis and Wenyen went for 20. Obviously we didn't do a good job with Bam not being in the game. For us, speed and quickness is the only advantage we might even be thinking about having inside. Obviously, we weren't very successful there."
On holding their own on the boards, especially on offense …
"Well, we missed a lot of shots. With these guys right here, Leon is a superior athlete, speed and quickness. Most people will say he's playing the four but he's just a big guard really but he's got some toughness about him. He's hard to block out on the perimeter when he starts running in there. Gilmore had a double-double tonight and I expect that out of him from the perimeter. If we could just get a shot up we were okay on offense. It was just the 30 times or whatever we just handed it to them. We decided to drive it when there was nobody there. Those 30 possessions during the game you know we weren't very good. If you could just take those out, I play again. Unfortunately, those are part of the game. We can't (commit turnovers). They make you play one-on-one. Their speed and quickness. I've been out here a few times and I've never seen that court look as small as it did today. Phew. I don't know if it's 94 feet by 50 or whatever it is that thing looked about 64 by 20. I don't know if it was because I was forced to move over 32 inches in seats but I've never seen that court look so small as it did tonight, as long as those jokers were."
On Leon Gilmore and Dallas Cameron …
"I thought these guys played really hard, just so you guys know. For a brand new team and bringing nine guys who never played Division 1 basketball and trying to fit them in together. I thought Dallas playing a new position as a senior, he's won 90 games in the first three years. Leon, who is taking a new role. I thought our kids really tried hard. I'm pretty proud of them coming into this kind of environment. Me throwing them in there, did no favors. I thought they did pretty good."
On where he thinks his team is right now …
"Honestly, I don't know where we are. Every day is a new day for us. We went from having eight suit up in our exhibition game the other night to, I looked down there and gosh almighty there were a bunch of dudes who we've never even had practice. Ty Charles who has practiced three days in the last six weeks who is our leading returning scorer. I just put him out there. I told the team in the locker room, 'hey, you give us confidence.' He was like 1-for-7 with seven turnovers or something. That's not who he is. He, or one of these guys have to be player of the year in our league for us to be successful. They did a great job. There's no current film on him this year because he hasn't played. He's just practiced one day before this week and then got in this week. I know them as people, as I've been here seven and a half months. They're great kids. I know they're going to fight. They won't quit on anyone that we have. They represent our school the right way. I know if I get in an alley, I'd take any one of them I have. All eight new ones and the five guys that stayed with us. That's the thing I trust with them. I believe when we get to the first of the year and we start league play, we're going to look back on this game and draw from it. I don't think we're going to have a De'Aaron Fox out there. What do you think Dallas? No. Dallas tried to tell me that there was a guy in our league that was as good as De'Aaron Fox and I just let him go. I wanted him to think that. You still think that Dallas? I want him to be confident. I want our guys to be confident because that's how they get good. We're going to gain a lot of confidence from this even though we didn't play our best. Kentucky had so much to do with that."
#3, Leon Gilmore, forward
On the atmosphere at Rupp Arena…
"I thought the atmosphere (in Rupp Arena) was pretty great. This was our first game of the season - at Kentucky. We were all prepared and we just felt good about it. We were confident and I don't think anyone our team was nervous. We were ready to play. It was just a fun time. Coach told us to go out there, play hard, and enjoy the moment while we're here."