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Locally-infused No. 16 Kentucky holds off Penn

12/09/2023, 10:45pm EST
By Rich Flanagan

Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)

PHILADELPHIA — Steve Donahue and John Calipari coached across from each other in Syracuse during the 2010 Sweet 16.

Donahue was at Cornell and in the midst of the program’s deepest postseason run in over 50 years, while Calipari was leading his first star-studded freshman class at Kentucky with the likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. 

The two men were on opposite sides again on Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center, and it was as heated and intense as that night in upstate New York 13 years ago. 

Calipari picked up another win over Donahue, now at Penn, as the Wildcats took down the Quakers, 81-66.

“I played him with a week of prep during our 2010 Sweet 16 run,” Donahue said. “They were talented with Cousins, Wall, and Bledsoe, but the attention to detail he had against our offense that year really opened my eyes that he can coach.”

Camden product D.J. Wagner and Kentucky took down Penn on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)

Kentucky had three players score at least 15 points and pulled away after the midway mark of the second half. It was a homecoming of sorts for several Kentucky players including Imhotep Charter alum Justin Edwards, Camden (N.J.) prospects Aaron Bradshaw and D.J. Wagner, and even Quaker Valley product Adou Thiero. Edwards was limited to six points and three rebounds in 14 minutes due to foul trouble, but Wagner and Bradshaw shined coming off different injuries.

Bradshaw was playing in only his second career collegiate game following a nagging foot injury that had hampered him since arriving in Lexington. He made his season debut against UNC Wilmington last weekend and the 7-foot-1 freshman big man has given No. 16 Kentucky (7-2) a dynamic it has been missing through the early part of the season. He recorded his first career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds to go along with three blocks.

“It was surreal being back home in front of my family,” Bradshaw said. “My team kept me level-headed and whenever I needed to talk to them, they gave great advice and were there when I needed them.”

Wagner contributed nine points and seven assists after spraining his ankle in against UNC Wilmington, but he didn’t want to miss this opportunity to play in front of Camden fans but more importantly, alongside his former teammate in Bradshaw for a full game.

“It was like riding a bike. It was comfortable,” Wagner said. 

The former 2,000-pointer scorer at Camden converted a layup to make it 35-23 with 2:18 left before halftime then two possessions later Bradshaw finished in transition off a Reed Sheppard feed to put the lead to 16. Penn (6-5) didn’t do itself any favors in the first half by shooting 13-of-33 from the floor, including 2-for-12 from behind the arc and it trailed by 10 at the break despite 12 points from Clark Slajchert, who finished with 17.

Calipari had been playing four guards or wing with Tre Mitchell in the middle through the first stretch of the season, but now with Bradshaw as the anchor inside, it’s almost as if he has a brand-new team as evidenced by the Wildcats’ 41-31 rebounding advantage.

“Our ball defense was better and if there was anything inside, he could get his hands up,” Calipari said. “He plays that kind of game. He can also reach above people, and he threw the ball ahead. This is going to be interesting because I have two teams: a small team and now a big team.”

Kentucky's Aaron Bradshaw goes to block a shot on Penn's Tyler Perkins. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)

Nick Spinoso battled with Bradshaw throughout, recording four blocks in the opening half and tallying 10 points, nine boards and five assists on the day. The 6-9 junior scored four early points in the second half then breakout freshman Tyler Perkins nailed a trey to make it 41-36. Baskets from Antonio Reeves (16 points) and Edwards pushed the Kentucy lead to seven, but the Quakers kept answering.

Perkins, who finished with 15 points, scored a layup then Lower Merion product Sam Brown drilled one of his four three-pointers, and Kentucky’s lead was down to 47-46 with 15:17 remaining.

“I think it says that we’re a mentally and physically tough team that plays hard,” Slajchert said. “We’re not going to give up, but we need to get to the point where we continue to push from that response and not put ourselves in that position where we have to respond. We need them to respond to us.”

While Bradshaw held much of the attention, Rob Dillingham erupted for 17 points off the bench and each basket he converted made it harder for Penn to mount a response.

In what has become the story of Penn’s season, they were a few possessions away from securing a win but didn’t make the necessary plays to close the deficit. Kentucky closed out the Quakers on a 20-9 run. Reeves scored nine of the next 13 and the lead grew to 15 with 3:01 left to play.

“We’ve played 11 games and that’s the second game we’ve lost in regulation,” said Donahue, whose team has already lost three overtime games. “We’ve been really close a lot and I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball yet. This group has been down a few times, and they have the right makeup and grit to come back.”

Penn outrebounded the opposition in eight of its 10 games leading into Saturday, and that is what Calipari was so afraid of coming in. Bradshaw controlled the game, Mitchell corralled nine boards, and Sheppard picked up the slack with five as Edwards dealt with foul trouble. The Quakers had four players in double figures but shooting 9-for-28 from deep is not a recipe for success and Calipari was pleased his team took them out of their halfcourt sets more often than not toward the end.

“The biggest thing you have to do is keep them out of their rhythm in the half court because if you don’t, you’re done,” Calipari said. “They should have no losses when taking into account how they lost to La Salle and Maryland-Eastern Shore. They beat Villanova. They’re good and I don’t know if we’ll play them again but I’m glad it’s over for now.”

Penn has already played a brutal schedule when accounting for the overtime losses and a close loss to St. Joe’s, but things don’t get easier over the next few weeks in anticipation of Ivy League play. A trip to No. 3 Houston looms Dec. 30 then a game at Auburn follows to start the new year before the Ivy League opener against Dartmouth on Jan. 6.

The Quakers have garnered some quality wins and played competitive games to this point, and Donahue expresses that it’s all part of a bigger plan to get this group to play its best basketball in the coming weeks.

“My opinion on our schedule is when you’re the main guy in a program that has an incredible history, we recruit to these events,” Donahue said. “These kids are excited about this day and playing Auburn and Houston, and that’s how we’re going to try and take the next step in building a team that can win a championship then hopefully make a run in the NCAA Tournament.”

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