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Utah Valley’s difficult opening weekend starts with a surprisingly close loss

The Wolverines couldn’t maintain their halftime lead against a talented Kentucky squad.

NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON—The day before Utah Valley’s matchup with No. 5 Kentucky, Coach John Calipari made a blunt statement to the media, saying that his Wildcats are “going to have to get hit in the mouth a few times” this season so they realize the right way to play.

The Wolverines went to swinging.

Yet, it wasn’t the offensive battle we anticipated.

The first half could be described as nothing short of ugly. With both teams trading blows, getting in foul trouble, and generally aggravating UK fans, it was exactly the start that the Wolverines—and perhaps John Calipari himself—wanted.

However, Utah Valley did not let Kentucky adjust as quickly as Calipari would have liked. The Wildcats were as cold as the Lexington air at the end of the first half, failing to put the ball in the net for the final four minutes of the period. Meanwhile, Utah Valley managed to take a nine-point lead into halftime after a 16-2 run.

Isaac Neilson was powering his way through the paint. Three pointers were falling. Rupp Arena was lifeless, save for a vocal contingent of Wolverine fans who made the spirited trek to the oft-electric venue.

That nine players saw minutes for the Wolverines in the first half is a testament to how well they leaned on their depth, and how Kentucky couldn’t capitalize against Utah Valley’s bench.

Nevertheless, Kentucky got the answer they wanted that Mark Pope had hoped would not actualize. In a span of 45 seconds, the Wildcats—led by Kevin Knox—went on a 7-0 run to cut the lead to five. It took them 1:23 to get the lead once more. The Wildcats did not relinquish the lead, but they also never ran away with it.

The final result: a 73-63 Kentucky victory that was nowhere near what oddsmakers expected.

Although the Wildcats did manage to overcome the halftime deficit and pull out the win in a less-than-desired fashion, it stands to reason that Utah Valley fans should have nothing but optimism after tonight.

Before the weekend of doom started for Utah Valley, many were wondering what benefits would truly be accrued by the Wolverines taking on both Kentucky and Duke so early.

After tonight, the benefit is clear: Utah Valley has proven to both the world and themselves that they have what it takes to hang with (or even dominate) anyone.

In his postgame press conference, Coach Mark Pope said he’s not a big fan of moral victories. Most sports fans would agree with him. However, it’s hard to look at a ten-point loss in which Kentucky looked utterly discombobulated for 20 minutes and not come away with a bit of optimism.

However, that’s not to say that Pope doesn’t maintain a positive outlook. When asked whether or not his team has a chip on its shoulder, Pope answered, saying that: “I’m a little biased, but that’s who they are…we’re going to grow into a really special team." He didn’t stop there, saying the following:

Calipari offered similar praise: "Mark [Pope] has done a great job with that team…their point guard kinda surprised us." Finally, he stated how he feels about the Wolverines it in the blunt fashion we’re used to getting from the Hall of Fame coach: “They’re legit.”

Before tonight, everyone questioned just what kind of impact those nine newcomers and 5 returning starters would have for Utah Valley. After tonight, one must agree with Calipari that it’s clear exactly what this Wolverines team can become: