After an awful loss at Auburn — an all systems failure — Cal’s Cats bounced back with authority, defeating an aggressive Arkansas 80-66.
Saturday’s game was lackluster on all accounts, especially in the frontcourt. With Derek Willis and Alex Poythress starting in the posts, the Cats came out of the locker room in each half with a fiery passion. The guards weren’t hitting, but the posts were cleaning up all of their trash.
When Alex Poythress went to the bench at the first media timeout, he had 6 points on 3-3 shooting and 4 rebounds with a 10-3 UK lead.
Poythress, along with Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere, provided second chance points to keep Kentucky’s momentum while the guards struggled to find their stroke. Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis kept grinding, until they found a hot streak in the second half. In a span of 2:19, Murray scored 9 straight to extend UK’s lead to 18. Tyler Ulis would finish the night with a career-high 24 points.
There was plenty of hype in Fayetteville entering today’s game, but the White Out at a packed Bud Walton Arena proved fruitless. The SEC’s leading 3-point shooting team only took three attempts in the first half and didn’t hit one until the 15:23 mark in the second half. To compare UK’s defensive performance to the last game, Auburn hit 12 three’s and Arkansas finished 2-12.
At times it wasn’t pretty, but it was arguably the best we’ve seen this team play.
A Spectacular Frontcourt Performance
We were wondering if Kentucky could win with the guards carrying the team. For most of the first half, it was the exact opposite.
Derek Willis played an energetic career-high 35 minutes, nearly mistake free. He wisely chose his shots, making 5-8 (2-4 from 3) on his way to 12 points. He rebounded with great positioning, finishing with 7 boards. His hands were active on the defensive end, blocking 4 shots and stealing a pass.
Alex Poythress dealt with tacky-tack fouls, but fought through it and continued to attack the glass. His stat line (7 points, 6 rebounds and a block) was not as meaningful as his play on the defensive end. Primarily playing small with Derek Willis in the lineup, he was forced to defend the paint. His presence was felt whenever he was on the floor.
Nobody grabbed the eye quite like Skal. For the first time in 8 games he hit double figures, finishing with 11 points, 3 blocks, 3 rebounds with a +10 while he was on the court. For a guy who’s been non-existent in 2016, I’d consider it a success.
But the stats he produced aren’t the reason tonight was his best game as a Wildcat.
The Skal Labissiere We’ve Been Waiting For
For the first time in months, the phone lines for radio shows won’t be filled with people ready to complain about the play of Skal Labissiere. He was fantastic, and it wasn’t just because he scored in the double-digits or threw down ferocious dunks. For the first time all year, Skal looked like he knew what he was doing.
Skal has always looked like he was physically capable of making the right plays, but he didn’t possess the intangibles to play competent basketball. Tonight he was in the right position on defense, helping off to block shots and disrupt passing lanes. He set solid screens and rolled to the basket with purpose. He played with an aggressiveness that had not been seen, the kind of aggressiveness the Big Blue Nation was begging for.
Skal may never be the kind of player to dominate a basketball game from start to finish, but if he can do the little things right, it can lead to great big things, like this.
Even though Kentucky controlled the game throughout, it was tough sledding to start. Murray, Ulis and Briscoe shot a combined 3-20 for 12 points in the first half. Luckily the front court was their to keep things stable while they struggled to find their shot, scoring 15 of the team’s first 17 points.
The guards never lost their cool, despite their cold hands. They attacked the basket and took “good” shots, until they finally began to fall later in the second half (Ulis and Murray would combine for 43 points). After hearing Calipari preach about making “winning plays” all week, it paid off through the tough times.
The Little Things
A pressing team, Arkansas tries to mentally rattle their opponents to create turnovers and build momentum. Kentucky was never phased by their press, and rarely gave them an opportunity to even set it up. They committed a season-low six turnovers.
On the opposite end of the floor, their defense was exponentially better. I already mentioned how the guards shut down their three-point shooters, but the posts kept the paint clear, blocking a season-high nine shots.
You combine the two together and what you get is more positive possessions.
In case that isn’t good enough, they also figured things out at the free throw line knocking down 23-30 free throws (76.7%).
Cal Spoke with Eddie Sutton after the Game
Calipari was late to speak with the media because he was busy visiting with Eddie Sutton. Calipari said he looked good, so good they posed for a picture.
Even though this Arkansas team is only .500 and has some bad losses on their resume, tonight’s game was at a critical juncture. At this point in the season, tonight’s game could have either started a slow and steady plunge, or catapulted Kentucky to a strong finish heading down the stretch.
We received the latter tonight, and their complete performance shows signs of promise for tomorrow.