Confidence high for Centre after Kentucky game

Published 6:01 pm Monday, November 6, 2017

LEXINGTON — The spotlight has gone dark, and it’s back to business for Centre College basketball.

The Colonels will play out their season in relative obscurity, with far fewer reporters and television cameras likely to document their final exhibition game and most of the 24 games on their regular-season schedule combined than were in Rupp Arena on Friday when they played Kentucky.

They will, of course, have the memories of their exhibition against Kentucky, which rolled out the red carpet for a preseason game that gave Centre more exposure than perhaps at any time in the history of the program.

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But those memories will keep. They also have a season to prepare for, and they hoped their game against the Wildcats would help them do that as well.

In some ways, it did. In others, not so much.

“There’s a lot about tonight that will not translate to Hanover, our next scrimmage,” Centre coach Greg Mason said. “But the confidence our guys gained – Perry Ayers (went to) his right hand, (for example,) and he did it against Kentucky, so he should be able to do it against others. There were just so many great things.”

The greatest of them may have been the confidence the Colonels gained from the things they did well in their 106-63 loss to the Wildcats.

Mason said he can easily tell his team the road will get easier from here, though it won’t be an easy road. Centre plays one more scrimmage Thursday against Hanover, which reached the round of eight in last year’s NCAA Division III Tournament and is ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll, and opens the season Nov. 15 against Maryville (Tenn.), which went 20-7 last season.

“You bet,” he said. “But, yeah, just so much confidence. Kentucky, it’s lottery picks, … a Naismith Hall of Fame coach. It’s just the mecca. There’s no question we gained confidence from this, even in getting beat by 43 points.”

Ayers, a sophomore guard who scored a team-high 14 points Friday, agreed that the Colonels’ confidence was higher when they left Rupp Arena than when they entered.

“It’s just a big confidence booster for the guys,” he said. “Getting to see that if we can score on them, we can score on anybody. It’s just big for the guys to get that in their head, and … realize it’s just basketball, so go out there and play your game.”

Junior guard Tucker Sine, who was the Colonels’ top scorer last season and who had 12 points against Kentucky, said they did that as well as they could have.

“The competition was pretty high tonight, and I think we rose to the challenge,” Sine added. “So we’re just thankful for Kentucky having us here, and what better way to play than in Rupp Arena?”

Will Hager, a 2016 Mercer County alumnus who transferred to Centre from Colorado School of Mines after redshirting as a freshman, said the game was more than just a memorable experience.

“We also got to work on ourselves tonight, and getting to play against somebody like Kentucky, it definitely makes you a lot better, so it just naturally prepares you for the other teams you play,” said Hager, who scored two points in 20 minutes. “It was a great experience, but we were also working on us to get better … and when you get to do it against guys like that it definitely helps you get better.”

Mason praised Centre’s perimeter play in the face of Kentucky’s pressure.

“We turned it over 15 times. If you’d told me five hours ago we’d turn it over 15 times, I’d have given you a big hug, I’d take it,” he said. “I was worried about the turnovers, I was worried about the glass. We did one well, we didn’t do a very good job on the glass. But hey, credit Kentucky.”

Art Walker, a sophomore guard, said the Colonels won’t see the length and quickness Kentucky had in any of its other opponents, even the top teams in Division III.

“It’s tough to say (how this will help us) because of how good they are … but I thought we did a decent job guarding them in the half-court, so I think if we cann translate that into transition defense and rebound, obviously, I think we’ll be all right,” Walker said.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said he was impressed with what he saw from Centre.

“You know what was great with (them), they saw no fear. They were so excited to play and they just played until the horn. And when he went to the bench, that guy was excited about playing,” Calipari said.

Junior guard Jarod Griffin, a Lexingtonian who played high school basketball at Lexington Catholic, said the Colonels were definitely excited about this opportunity, as was the larger Centre community. The gold shirts of hundreds of Centre alumni and fans were could be seen in all parts of the arena, from the courtside seats to the highest reaches of the building, and Griffin said the best thing about the week leading up to Friday’s game was the level of excitement around the school.

“It’s such a great opportunity for Centre College as a whole. The whole campus kind of rallied around us in this game,” Griffin said. “It was a really awesome experience for all of us. It’s a great opportunity to play against one of the best programs in college basketball. We were really excited to do this … (and) we thought we got better, and we hope we helped them get better as a team, too.”

Kentucky has been playing preseason games against non-Division I schools since 2004, and Centre is the 11th such Kentucky college to be welcomed to Rupp Arena in those 14 seasons. Calipari said it’s important to use his program’s status to help schools like Centre, and Mason is grateful that his program got its turn.

“The Kentucky basketball brand is so powerful. I’ve been a fan since I was 6 years old, probably earlier than that. I remember having to go to bed at halftime of the national championship game in 1978,” Mason said. “What I’m going take from (this) is our guys did well, and I’m very proud of them, but also the class of UK basketball. Everybody up here was beyond nice. There’s a reason why it’s Kentucky basketball: It’s first class all the way.”