LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Rajon Rondo hinted before the basketball season that he worked hard during the offseason to improve.
In Kentucky’s first two games, he’s offered solid proof.
Rondo scored a career-high 19 points and led the eighth-ranked Wildcats with seven rebounds and five assists in a 67-49 victory over Lipscomb in the second round of the Guardians Classic on Monday night.
A 23-9 run during the final 10 minutes allowed Kentucky (2-0) to put away Lipscomb (1-1) and advance to the tournament semifinals next Monday in Kansas City, Mo. The Wildcats will play either No. 20 Iowa or Colgate, who meet in a second-round game Tuesday.
In Kentucky’s first-round win over South Dakota State, Rondo had 17 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and six assists. Against Lipscomb, with the Wildcats engaged in a closer-than-expected contest most of the way, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith entrusted the team to his sophomore point guard.
Rondo responded with a 7-for-10 shooting performance.
“He’s getting a lot of confidence in his ability to make the outside shot,” Smith said. “People have to come up and guard him because he hits the outside jumper, and even if you do stay back, he’s still quick enough and athletic enough to get by you off the dribble.
“He’s extremely fast and his body control is remarkable.”
That speed—and the speed of Ravi Moss and Ramel Bradley, who played much of the second half in place of starters Joe Crawford and Patrick Sparks— proved to be the difference in the final minutes, as the Bisons, without as much depth as Kentucky, eventually wore down.
Moss played a career-high 24 minutes and scored a career-high 13 points, while Bradley added 12 points.
“Ravi gives us that athleticism and a real heart and soul,” Smith said. “You know he’s going to go in there and lay it on the line. That’s just what he did and that’s contagious and infectious.”
Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson praised Smith’s decision to put a smaller, faster lineup on the floor.
“Down the stretch, they made some key 3-pointers, and we struggled with some of their screens keeping Rondo in front of us,” Sanderson said.
Lipscomb, a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, finished 16-12 last season. The former NAIA basketball power, located in Nashville, Tenn., moved into NCAA Division I to start the 1999-00 season. Since that time, Kentucky is by far the highest-profile team to play the Bisons.
The Bisons took a 9-3 lead but scored only one basket during the next 11-plus minutes. Kentucky took advantage and led 22-11 at the six-minute mark.
Lipscomb, though, closed to 30-22 by halftime and was as close as two twice during the first eight minutes of the second half. The Bisons had two chances to tie or take the lead, but missed a 3-point attempt and turned the ball over.
Still, the Bisons wouldn’t go away, pulling to 44-40 with 10 minutes left on a basket by reserve swingman Eddie Ard, who scored a career-high 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, including 18 points in the second half. The Wildcats tried several defensive matchups in an attempt to stop Ard.
“When you’re playing a team like Kentucky, it can bring out the best of your ability,” Ard said.
Kentucky extended its lead in the final minutes. Rondo gave the Wildcats their first double-digit advantage since the first half, making two free throws with 5:34 left to put Kentucky up 54-43. Two minutes later, Moss hit a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 14 and allow Kentucky fans to start breathing easier.
Sanderson said the experience of playing before 19,369 fans at Rupp Arena would pay dividends for the Bisons.
“We don’t have to beat Kentucky to go to the NCAA tournament,” he said. “We have to beat the teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference that are more comparable to us. I don’t think there is a better environment in college basketball than playing in Rupp Arena, and I think our guys played very well for most of the game.”