LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP)—Shortly after making a careless mistake, one of numerous ones in the first half, Terrence Jones tried pleading his case to Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Calipari interrupted his precocious freshman and told him in not-so-subtle fashion to take a seat on the bench.
OK, so maybe the kid still has a few things to learn. There’s no denying his talent, though.
Jones dominated inside on his way to 29 points and 13 rebounds, helping the eighth-ranked Wildcats hold off scrappy Oklahoma 76-64 in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Monday.
“He’s not used to playing this hard, he’s not used to competing,” Calipari said. “As the game gets more physical, that’s when we’ll find out is he ready to be that guy. Today was terrific.”
It sure was, and the Wildcats (3-0) needed all of it.
The 1993 Maui champions, Kentucky and its fabulous freshmen were dominant at times, racing out to what seemed to be rout-starting leads. They also let their inexperience show, nearly blowing all of an 18-point lead as Oklahoma (3-1) fought its way back.
Jones wouldn’t let the Sooners get there, blocking a 3-point attempt by Cade Davis then sealing the win with a breakaway dunk that made it 70-62 with just over a minute left. He finished 12 of 17 from the field, blocked four shots, had three assists—one a nifty no-looker while leading the break—and had two steals.
Kentucky moves on to face No. 17 Washington, the team Jones spurned before joining the Wildcats.
“I thought last year when we recruited him that Terrence Jones was the best player in the country in his class,” Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. “There were other players who had higher accolades, but I didn’t see them having the impact that he could. He certainly did that this afternoon.”
Oklahoma is in the midst of a rebuilding project that started with a 13-18 season in 2009-10 that including nine straight losses to end it. The Sooners are young—seven of their eight top scorers are underclassmen—but did manage to open the season with wins over Coppin State, North Carolina Central and Texas Southern.
Of course, those teams aren’t quite on the same level as Kentucky, where national titles are the only goal.
The Wildcats lost five first-round NBA draft picks, but simply reloaded with a team Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun joked could give the Boston Celtics a run for their money. Kentucky routed East Tennessee State in its opener and scored the first 15 points on the way to a 31-point win over Portland last week.
The Wildcats didn’t do that to Oklahoma, though it looked it was headed that way early with Jones dominating.
The 6-foot-8 freshman had a school debut-record 25 points in his first collegiate game and was dominant from the opening tip against the Sooners, scoring right-handed, left-handed, whichever way he wanted. Jones overpowered Oklahoma inside, hitting his first three shots while Kentucky hit eight of nine to build an 18-6 lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes.
Oklahoma wouldn’t let the Wildcats run away with it just yet, keeping it under double digits for a while behind Andrew Fitzgerald’s 10 points.
Then the Wildcats went on a run.
Wearing the Sooners down with their depth and quickness, Kentucky started to pull away late in the first half, building a 42-28 lead behind Jones’ 12 points and eight rebounds.
Jones had a good start to the second half, too, scoring on a baseline dunk after Kentucky grabbed a missed free throw, then sashaying around Nick Thompson for a that-was-sure-easy scoop shot that put the Wildcats up 52-39. He later had a no-look, crosscourt pass on the break to Josh Harrellson for a dunk.
Oklahoma just wouldn’t go away.
The Sooners took advantage of Kentucky’s struggles at the free-throw line— 11 of 22—and rattled the young Wildcats with a myriad of defenses, slowing the game to a crawl.
The Sooners frazzled Kentucky and chipped away at the lead, making the Kentucky-dominated crowd a bit restless when Davis dropped in a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 68-62 with just over 2 minutes left.
Oklahoma just didn’t have enough to finish it off, its final chance ending with Jones’ block on Davis’ 3-pointer and subsequent dunk.
Davis finished with 23 points and Fitzgerald had 14 for the Sooners.
“We had chance down the stretch, but you have to give credit to Kentucky,” Capel said. “They’re a very talented team and they made plays throughout the game.”