Centre makes most of trip to Rupp Arena

Published 1:02 am Saturday, November 4, 2017

LEXINGTON — It was the worst beating one of Greg Mason’s Centre College teams has ever taken on the basketball court. And he enjoyed every minute of it.

The Colonels shined under the spotlight Friday night at Rupp Arena, even in a 106-63 exhibition loss to a Kentucky team that will be unlike any other school they’ll face over the next four months.

They also accomplished most of the things their coach hoped for in what might have been the most high-profile game in the program’s history, and they left with smiles on their faces.

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“We represented our college and our program very, very well,” Mason said. “It was a good night for Centre basketball – and saying that, we got beat by 43 points.”

Centre wasn’t in the game for very long – and didn’t expect to be. The Colonels couldn’t match Kentucky’s size, speed or talent and couldn’t keep the game from getting out of hand in the first half.

They settled for 3-point shots on nearly half of their 60 field-goal attempts, and they were outrebounded 52-17.

They were, however, able to steady themselves in the second half, when they shot 47 percent from the field and hit six of 14 3-point shots. And Mason said they can take away a number of positives beyond the experience of simply playing this game.

“We did so many things well,” Mason said. “We only turned it over 15 times against their pressure, which says a lot about our perimeter (players). The one thing, obviously, (that didn’t go well) was our rebounding. They’re devastating. There were balls that Nick Richards got that we’ll never, ever get. But all in all, if you’d told me this is the way we would have competed, I’d take that,” Mason said.

Centre whittled a 25-10 deficit to 28-22 in just over three minutes, then was powerless to prevent a 24-2 Kentucky run over the final 8 minutes of the first half that made it 52-24 at halftime.

“We had a run in the first half where we got it down to six or eight and we got some confidence in us, and then they had that big run,” Centre guard Perry Ayers said. “In the second half we did it again and got more confidence in us, and we just started playing well. It was big for us.”

Ayers scored 14 points and Tucker Sine added 12 to lead the Colonels, who got points from 12 different players. Wenyen Gabriel had 20 points to lead five players in double figures for Kentucky.

Centre shot 38 percent overall from the field, settling for 3-point tries on 27 of 60 attempts, while Kentucky shot 62 percent. The Colonels had 15 turnovers and eight steals, exactly the same numbers as the Wildcats.

Of course, they also had some moments when they realized they were playing against a different level of competition than they’re used to. Ayers said that realization came to him on one of his first shot attempts.

“I got under the goal and had a shot. (I looked up and) there were no lights, there were just hands,” he said.

Freshman Will Hager, whose last game was in Rupp Arena with Mercer County in the 2016 Boys Sweet 16, said his moment came less than three minutes into the game when he checked in for the first time.

“Through warmups I was actually pretty calm, but when I got in the game and actually lined up against Wenyen Gabriel, that was it for me,” Hager said. “I haven’t been back to Rupp Arena since I played my last high school game, and I definitely never thought I’d be playing in Rupp Arena again, and just walking out on the court again and getting to play, it was an amazing feeling.”

Mason said he wanted to make sure the Colonels stayed focused on the floor but also wanted them to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I meant to say in a media timeout to take it all in. I didn’t do that, and I wish I had. You don’t want to do too much of that, though, because all of a sudden you become a tourist,” he said.

Mason remembers his first visit to Rupp Arena, when as a 6-year-old he came with the husband of his first-grade teacher to watch the 1978 Kentucky team that would go on to win the national championship. He remembers having seats behind the baseline for a game that he thinks was against Auburn, and he remembers the wildcat mascot having some fun with him at one point.

He has returned to Rupp countless times since then, but this was one trip he’ll remember at least as well as that first visit.

“What an awesome experience,” he said. “It’s my basketball nirvana, just a state of perfect happiness. I wouldn’t change anything at all.”