The last preseason game is supposed to be one teams just try to get through without any injuries.
But Saturday night’s exhibition finale wasn’t an ordinary game for three Kings who played at Kentucky.
Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein received big cheers throughout the night as three of four former Wildcats on the floor. The Kings defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 107-98 in front of an announced crowd of 19,183 at Rupp Arena to finish the preseason 5-1.
The three Kings, along with New Orleans star Anthony Davis, were big reasons many fans attended the game. The players relished their chance to play in their college arena again, too.
“It was fun being back in a place I consider home, playing in front of some of the best fans in the world,” Cousins said. “Just being in that sea of blue was just a great feeling. We got the win, the fans were good – overall it was a great night.”
Cauley-Stein is less than a year removed from playing for the Wildcats, having been part of last season’s 38-1 squad that lost in the Final Four.
“It was fun,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was electric. They’re so loyal. It’s just a blessing to play in front of them, honestly.”
Rondo was the only former Kentucky player on the court Saturday night who did not play for current coach John Calipari. He played two seasons for Tubby Smith before being a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.
Rondo said it felt good to be welcomed back nearly a decade later.
“It was a such a great crowd,” Rondo said. “It took me back to my Boston days. The fans are so passionate and know the game.”
Rondo said the atmosphere in Rupp is always good and that the student section at games is one of his fondest memories.
“Every play was a big roar, big cheer,” Rondo said. “It wasn’t a sit-back-and-relax type of crowd.”
Cousins had 19 points and five rebounds before fouling out. Cauley-Stein had seven points and six rebounds. Rondo finished with three points and three assists.
Many of the questions for coach George Karl concerned how the former Kentucky players would fare this season. He expects a lot from them.
“Two of them (Rondo and Cousins) are going to be starters, and one of them (Cauley-Stein) has a good chance to play a lot of minutes for us,” Karl said.
Cousins is coming off his first All-Star season, and Rondo is a four-time All-Star. So there was plenty of intrigue about how Cauley-Stein will fare this season.
Karl is impressed with his progress.
“The rookie has had his moments,” Karl said. “I thought he started off slowly but recently in the games he’s seemingly learning and picking up things fast. I think Cuz and Willie can really give us a big defensive presence.”
The Kings started slowly Saturday, falling behind by 17 points before rectifying things in the second quarter. After giving up 61 points in the first half, the Kings held New Orleans (2-2) to 37 points the rest of the game.
“I like the second half,” Karl said. “We showed some heart, some character, whatever you want to call it. A lot of games are won by grit and heart, and I thought (Saturday’s) game was more grit and heart than it was pretty play, pretty basketball.”
Rudy Gay led the Kings with 20 points and 10 rebounds.
The Kings’ reserves continued to provide a spark.
Darren Collison had 19 points and seven assists off the bench. Omri Casspi had his best showing of the preseason with 16 points and seven rebounds.
“My bench still excites me,” Karl said. “It seems like we always find some weapon, some action, that kind of saves or plugs a hole we had with our starters.”
Former Oak Ridge High School and Cal star Ryan Anderson led the Pelicans with 20 points. Davis had 19 points and eight rebounds.
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