LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Who knows if it was the playing time that sparked the points or the points that sparked the playing time? Either way, Rekalin Sims returned as a scoring presence for No. 19 Kentucky on Friday night.
The reserve forward had 11 points, six more than his total in the previous three games, to lead the Wildcats to 73-67 victory over Iona in their annual home game at Freedom Hall.
“I definitely needed a game like I had, just because I’ve been on the down for the last few games,” The 6-foot-8 junior said. “This was a confidence-builder for me.”
The Wildcats (8-3) never trailed, although the Gaels (7-1) played them far tougher than No. 11 Louisville—the court’s usual tenant—did in getting blown out last Saturday in Lexington, Ky.
If that game proved the guard-heavy Kentucky lineup can score inside, this one provided more evidence.
It marked the re-emergence of Sims, who was 5-of-8 from the field. Earlier this week, he acknowledged his shooting has struggled since his drop-off in playing time, something he said he never had to deal with in junior college.
Rajon Rondo had 13 points for Kentucky and Joe Crawford added 12, but much of the post-game credit was heaped on Sims.
“He was more mobile,” Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said.
Rondo said he sensed a breakout for Sims.
“He had a swagger in the warmups,” Rondo said.
Kentucky is 116-31 all-time in Louisville, including victories in its last 16 games there against non-Southeastern Conference teams other than the Cardinals.
Steve Burtt had 23 points for Iona, which cut the lead to three with just over a minute left. But Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks hit a 3-pointer—his only field goal of the game. Sparks had a season-high eight assists and a game-high seven rebounds.
“I like shooting in this gym,” said Sparks, who made three free throws in the final seconds to win last year’s game against Louisville in Freedom Hall. “It’s a good place to play.”
With the game tied 4-4, Kentucky went on an 8-0 run. The Gaels cut the lead to 14-11 on consecutive 3-pointers—including a four-point play by Marvin McCullough—but they would get no closer.
Burtt, who came into the game as the nation’s No. 3 scorer, scored 21 points in the second half. He missed seven of eight shots in the first half and spent much of the opening 20 minutes on the bench after picking up two quick fouls.
“You can’t keep a great player down,” Smith said of Burtt. “A guy like Steve Burtt made some big plays down there, but I thought we made him work to get his shots.”
Kentucky is 6-0 against Iona and 11-0 against teams from the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Iona coach Jeff Ruland said. “A couple of our big guys just didn’t show up tonight.”