LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kyle Wiltjer is finally figuring out the tougher play at this level because he's learning all about it in practice.
Wiltjer scored a personal-best 24 points and a trio of freshmen sparked No. 3 Kentucky's 17-2 second-half run to beat Loyola (Md.) 87-63 on Thursday for the Wildcats' 42nd straight win at home.
"It's a lot more physical in college. It's a lot quicker, a lot quicker guys," Wiltjer said. "Fortunately, we have such a good team to go against such good players every day in practice, once you get to a game, it's not so bad."
It's been a shocking learning experience for Wiltjer and one that Kentucky coach John Calipari said they need to continue to work on with the 6-foot-9 forward.
"I think the kid has a toughness at heart, but we're just going to have to help him," the coach said. "I've got to get him to take more charges, not going to block shots, charge, block out more and then when he's in the post we've got to do some things."
Wiltjer and fellow freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all had afternoons to remember as Kentucky (11-1) heads into a break before the schedule begins to ramp up.
Meanwhile, Kidd-Gilchrist's mother, Cindy Richardson, has been hospitalized according to a school spokesman who had no details of her ailment or its severity.
"We were trying to figure out whether we should send him home this morning early," Calipari said. "It wasn't so immediate that there was going to be things done today. It's in the early process, and like I said, I hope that what we find out is all good."
Baltimore-based Loyola (8-3) stayed close throughout the first half and pestered Kentucky, which was missing preseason All-America Terrence Jones for the second straight game after he dislocated the pinky finger on his left, shooting hand on Saturday.
"I wanted to make the most of my minutes with Terrence being out," Wiltjer said. "Cal just wants me to be a more aggressive player."
Erik Etherly scored 14 points, Dylon Cormier 13 and Justin Drummond had 10 points for the Greyhounds.
"It was good for us. It shows we can play with them," Cormier said. "If we can play with them, then at the mid-major level we should be something to be reckoned with."
Davis contributed 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, Kidd-Gilchrist added 15 points and seven rebounds and Darius Miller had 13 points. Kentucky hosts Lamar on Wednesday night after a five-day break ahead of renewing its in-state rivalry with No. 4 Louisville on Dec. 31.
Kentucky needed to work a little harder than expected after Etherly cut the lead to 45-41 with the first basket of the second half before the Wildcats began pulling away.
Wiltjer went 7 of 11 from the field after shooting 33 percent over his previous eight games. His 3 early in the second half extended Kentucky's streak to 799 straight games with at least one from beyond the arc and Kidd-Gilchrist finished a dunk to give Kentucky a 56-46 lead with 16:41 to play.
"(Wiltjer) did a great job of knocking down shots and creating shots," Miller said. "He opened up the floor for us."
After a timeout, Etherly scored to cut it to eight, but Kidd-Gilchrist and Wiltjer sparked the 17-2 run. A basket by Wiltjer and a dunk by Eloy Vargas made it 73-50 as Loyola went 5:17 without a point because of Kentucky's throttling defense.
On one play, Davis crossed the lane and swatted J'hared Hall's layup attempt for his third block of the game. Davis has 52 blocks, on pace to easily break the school's season-single record of 83.
Jones again was not in uniform after his finger bent awkwardly early in Saturday's win over Chattanooga. The 6-9 sophomore forward spent another game sitting sat beside Ryan Harrow and the rest of the injured Wildcats after appearing in the first 48 straight games of his collegiate career.
Loyola's longest winning streak since joining Division I in 1981-82 ended at eight at St. Bonaventure on Sunday, and while the Greyhounds hadn't played an SEC opponent in 28 years, they weren't intimidated by the Rupp Arena crowd.
"You have to be honest, we played as hard as we could," Loyola coach Jimmy Pastos said. "They've got five NBA guys out there. We were right there. Did we try as hard as we could? Absolutely."
The Greyhounds only led once at 2-0, but stayed close and even showed some swagger of their own, with Cormier doing his own "3-goggles" salute after hitting a long-range shot midway through the first half.
After a 6-0 run gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead at 33-23, Loyola answered with an 8-0 run that was capped when the Greyhounds stripped Marquis Teague in a halfcourt trap and Etherly finished an alley-oop pass from Robert Olson on the break.
Etherly went right at Davis, one of the top college prospects in the country, when he beat Wiltjer on the dribble and Davis couldn't rotate over to block Etherly's emphatic dunk in time as the Greyhounds trailed 45-39 at halftime.
"We didn't come into this game thinking we were going to get blown out," Etherly said. "We came in here to win, which showed in the first half. But they kind of ran away in the second half."
That's when Wiltjer starting hitting clutch shots and Kentucky tightened its pressure to pull away.