Oscar Tshiebwe kept battling for position, pushing his way to daylight and grabbing seemingly every loose rebound with a rugged relentlessness.
No one was going to stop him, either.
When it was over, the two-time Associated Press All-American had turned in the best rebounding performance in the NCAA Tournament in nearly a half-century — and Kentucky was free to move past last year’s one-and-done showing.
Tshiebwe pulled down 25 rebounds and Antonio Reeves scored 22 points, helping the Wildcats beat Providence 61-53 in Friday night’s first round.
Tshiebwe’s rebounding output represented the most in any tournament game since 1977. Eleven of his rebounds came on the offensive glass — a big factor in the sixth-seeded Wildcats (22-11) staying in control as both offenses grinded to a halt after halftime.
“I told (my teammates), I said, ‘This year we come in and fight, last year doesn’t matter anymore,’” said Tshiebwe, who entered as the nation’s leading rebounder at 13.1 per game.
The “last year,” of course, was the shocking first-round exit against 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s that had hung over the program all season. Now the Wildcats are moving on to face third-seeded Kansas State on Sunday in the East Region.
“Yeah, it was a big relief obviously,” forward Jacob Toppin said.
When the horn sounded, guard Cason Wallace let out a scream before giving a chest bump to Reaves. And Tshiebwe soon emerged from a postgame TV interview by gleefully skipping his way off toward the locker room.
His rebounding total was the most in the tournament since Michigan’s Phil Hubbard had 26 boards against Detroit Mercy in 1977.
Providence falls to Kentucky in first round of NCAA Tournament