Before the start of the second half, Oscar Tshiebwe sought advice from one of the referees. Kentucky’s big man wanted to know how to avoid more foul trouble. Two quick fouls — both for going over the back in an attempt to grab an offensive rebound — limited him to 10 minutes, five points and three rebounds in the first half.
“He said I pushed the dude before I grabbed the ball,” Tshiebwe said after UK’s 76-64 victory over Southern on Tuesday night. “I said, so tell me, what I should do? That’s what I asked him.
“He said, just go up with two hands up. I said, good. I’m going to try to do that. I want you to keep your eye on me because I’m going to try to do that.”
Tshiebwe did not identify the referee/coach. But how he followed the advice was evident in the second half when he scored 18 more points and grabbed eight more rebounds.
Southern Coach (and one of UK’s “Unforgettables”) Sean Woods credited Tshiebwe with playing the key role in helping Kentucky improve to 7-1.
“I thought Oscar was the difference down the stretch,” Woods said. “He took advantage of our switching.”
Several times in the second half, Tshiebwe set a screen for a UK guard out on the court, then moved into position on the low post with a smaller defender having switched onto him.
Tshiebwe again spoke of not liking to rebound against smaller players because the size difference leads to flopping and foul calls.
But he liked posting up smaller defenders, which he said he told UK Coach John Calipari.
“Coach, they don’t have anybody who can stop me,” Tshiebwe said he told Calipari. “I got a little dude on me.”
If Southern — or future opponents — double down on Tshiebwe in the post, he said he should look to pass to an open teammate. While point guard Sahvir Wheeler might be rooting for the teammate to make the shot in order to get an assist, Tshiebwe jokingly spoke of a different agenda.
“Can you guys miss some shots so I can get some rebounds?” a smiling Tshiebwe said he told his teammates. “I cannot get 20 rebounds if you’re not missing some shots.”
Kentucky had plenty of reasons to be overconfident going into the inaugural Unity Series game.
Entering this week, none of the 12 teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference had a winning record. The teams’ combined mark was 15-75. In the NCAA’s NET rankings released Monday, eight of the SWAC’s 12 teams placed outside the top 300.
Southern’s NET ranking of 258 was fourth-best behind Texas Southern (181), Jackson State (234) and Alcorn State (253).
Kentucky did not start well against Southern. The Cats fell behind 9-2 inside the first four minutes and trailed much of the opening 14 minutes.
A late surge enabled Kentucky to lead 38-34 at halftime. Foul trouble and turnovers prevented basketball’s equivalent of a first-round knockout.
UK’s leading scorer, freshman TyTy Washington, picked up his second foul with 11:33 left when called for charging. He played only six minutes and scored four points in the half.
Tshiebwe picked up two fouls within 90 seconds and went to the bench with 9:19 left in the half.
The opening minutes of the second half were all Kentucky, which expanded its lead to 49-36 with 15:58 left.
Foul trouble stalled any expectation of a blowout unfolding. Much to UK fans’ consternation, Tshiebwe picked up his third foul with 14:34 left. After missing a free throw that would have completed an and-one, he appeared to tie up the Southern player who had the rebound. Boos greeted the call of a foul rather than an alternate arrow tie-up.
“He faced me and he showed me the ball,” Tshiebwe said. “I grabbed the ball, and they called a foul. … I did not know how that was a foul.”
When the lead shrunk to 55-47, Calipari did not wait for a dead ball. His timeout with 9:37 left allowed Tshiebwe and Wheeler to return to the game.
Tshiebwe took advantage of a defensive switch to post up for a score over a 6-foot-4 guard to put UK ahead 60-51.
Tshiebwe posted two more times down the stretch to help Kentucky keep Southern at bay.
“They outhustled us,” Calipari said. “They outplayed us. We couldn’t stay in front of them. They crowded the court and stayed in front of us.”
Calipari spoke of the Unity Series meaning revenue to Southern and exposure to the Jaguars and the SWAC,
Then he added, “Thank goodness that we won because they played harder than us.”
No. 10 Kentucky at Notre Dame
When: 5:15 p.m. Saturday