POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell wanted to challenge his team early in the season.
Facing a raucous crowd, the seventh-ranked Wildcats got all they could handle from pesky Marist before pulling away for a 75-61 win Friday night in the season opener for both teams.
"I have tremendous respect for Marist," Mitchell said. "So many times we opened the season at home, a comfortable place against a team we had outmatched talent wise. To come into this place and the way they responded. It's a new season and new team."
Kentucky is trying to build off last season's loss to Connecticut in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have been one step away from the Final Four in three of the past four seasons and hope this time they can get there. Wins like Friday will help.
"This was a terrific game with an incredible atmosphere," Mitchell said. "From the time we got into town it's been a tremendous experience to be at Marist. They have such a great program, great fans. So pleased our team was able to respond and earn a very good opening win against a very good team."
After trailing early on as Marist (0-1) was bolstered by a sellout crowd, the Wildcats built a 17-point lead in the second half behind strong play from Bria Goss and Kastine Evans, who scored 15 points to lead the team.
Just as Kentucky looked as if it was going to take control, the Red Foxes scored 11 straight to pull to 50-44 midway through the second half. They had a chance to cut it further, but a 3-pointer by Leanne Ockenden, who led the team with 16 points, rimmed out.
Kentucky then scored 12 of the next 16 points to put the game away.
"Like we told our kids, kudos to Kentucky," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "When they needed to make big 3s they did. When we cut it to six they hit a few in a row. We had a couple of bad turnovers."
The Wildcats were the highest-ranked team ever to visit Marist, a school nestled 80 miles north of New York City. The Red Foxes hosted 16th-ranked Oklahoma in 2009 and lost an overtime thriller. The Sooners will come to Poughkeepsie again right before Christmas. Giorgis will hope to have a healthier team at that point.
The Red Foxes were missing star guard Casey Dulin, who had surgery last week on her right foot.
"We don't have Casey for a while, I don't know for how long," Giorgis said. "This is going to get us better."
Marist also was without 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Delaney Hollenbeck and 6-2 junior Tori Jarosz.
Even without the trio, Marist got off to a great start. The Red Foxes led 15-8 after Ockenden's 3-pointer with 14:02 left in the first half. That was the Red Foxes' last basket for the nearly the next 12 minutes.
Kentucky trailed 18-12 before scoring 12 straight points during a 17-1 run. Six different Wildcats scored during the burst which was capped by Denesha Stallworth's layup that made it 29-19 with 4:46 left in the half.
Bri Holmes' layup with 2 minutes left in the half ended the field goal drought and made it 34-24. Kentucky led 39-26 at the half.
The Red Foxes have been one of the top mid-major program over the past decade. They won their eighth straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament last season and have five NCAA tournament victories since 2007.
Due to their success under Giorgis, the Red Foxes have always drawn well at home since his arrival 12 seasons ago. The veteran coach is donating money towards hunger awareness for every fan that attends a Marist home game. The campaign got off to a good start with the sellout for the Kentucky game. Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell pledged to match Giorgis' donations for the season.
"I can't thank Matt enough for his donation," Giorgis said.