LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Top-ranked Kentucky was so startled by Columbia’s fast start that the Wildcats still weren’t sure what to make of it even after they seized the tempo and eventually the outcome.
After all, Kentucky hadn’t faced a double-digit deficit this season until the Ivy Leaguers scored the first 11 points Wednesday night. But the Wildcats recovered for a 56-46 victory in a game that served more as a wakeup call than the tuneup they sought for Saturday’s showdown against No. 21 North Carolina.
“At tipoff, we were down 11-0 and the guys were kind of deflated,” Kentucky freshman forward Trey Lyles said after scoring seven points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
“They came in, played well and hit shots. We had to fight from behind for the majority of the game, but we came out, played as a team and got the win.”
Nothing came easy, though.
Kentucky still trailed at halftime and finally shook off its slow start to finally take a lead it never relinquished despite some tense moments at the end.
In a college basketball season already marked by several big upsets, the Wildcats (10-0) got their toughest challenge yet from the pesky Lions. Columbia led for nearly 27 minutes before Aaron Harrison and Co. took control.
Set to face UNC, UCLA and Louisville in their next three games, the Wildcats had trouble from the outset against Columbia (5-3). Coach John Calipari called a timeout as the Lions took an 11-0 lead.
“You have got to give a lot of credit to Columbia,” Calipari said. “They were not afraid. They played Michigan State the same way they played us at Michigan State and they knew they could do this. They did a great job of spreading us out.”
The Wildcats ultimately clamped down on defense to make several stops in the second half and took the lead for good at 36-34 on Derek Willis’ two free throws with 13:18 remaining.
Harrison scored 14 points and Willie Cauley-Stein added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Kentucky. Injured freshman guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker didn’t play.
Maodo Lo scored 16 points for Columbia, which was outrebounded 41-28 — including 24-13 in the second half.
Kentucky used its size and strength to rally, and avoided adding its name to the list of recent surprises.
A month into the season, Michigan has lost to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Eastern Michigan, defending NCAA champion Connecticut fell to Yale, Indiana was edged by Eastern Washington, Purdue lost to North Florida and Drexel was beaten by Philadelphia University of The Sciences.
Columbia took its shot at becoming a giant killer in the first half, but its lead slowly slipped away behind 38 percent shooting. Kentucky shot just 37 percent, including 2 of 17 from 3-point range.
“Didn’t quite execute keeping them off the glass, which is everyone’s No. 1 priority,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said.
“But I thought we did some good things and still had some opportunities. Even late in the game we could have made a couple 3s, tied that thing up and made it a little more interesting. Kentucky is the No. 1 team in the country. They are very well coached.”
The gritty Lions certainly succeeded in making Kentucky work all night, especially in a first half that created angst among the 22,112 fans, if not the Wildcats. Columbia jumped out to a 14-3 lead and led 25-23 at halftime thanks to good ball movement, quickness and especially 3-point shooting with Lo leading the way.
Most importantly, Columbia had the tempo it wanted before Kentucky eventually reclaimed it by shutting down the Lions. The Wildcats know they won’t have that luxury of time in the next few games.
“We just have to make sure we come out with energy,” Harrison said. “It’s kind of hard to play our style of basketball when the offense they were playing is really tough to guard.”
Calipari said he didn’t know if Ulis and Booker would be available against North Carolina, and didn’t specify their injuries. In the meantime, Willis contributed five points on the second platoon, including a 3-pointer, in 9 minutes of action.
Columbia: The Lions fell to 4-12 against the SEC and haven’t beaten one since topping Auburn during the 1957-58 season.
Kentucky: The Wildcats have held nine of 10 opponents to season lows in scoring.
Columbia: Hosts Hofstra on Dec. 20.
Kentucky: Hosts North Carolina on Saturday.