After blowing a 21-point lead at Tennessee, Kentucky needed a big performance today at Rupp, and the Cats delivered, putting a 19-point beatdown on the Florida Gators. Kentucky led by 18 at halftime and by as much as 26 in the second half. Jamal Murray led the way with a career-high 35 points, followed by Tyler Ulis with 18 and Derek Willis with 12.
“It was a great bounce-back win today,” Calipari said. “To do this against this team — and again, you have to understand, this team beat West Virginia by 20, and they had won five of six games. So they had been playing well. But this was good for us, good win.”
For most of the game, Kentucky looked as good as they have all season, helping erase memories from what was hopefully a fluke performance in Knoxville. Let’s break down the win.
Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis led the way
Kentucky’s guard play has always been its strength, and today, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis stole the show. Murray and Ulis combined for 53 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, and only 4 turnovers, meaning they scored 66% of the Cats’ points. With his parents in the stands, Murray finished with a career-high 35 points, the most by a freshman in the John Calipari era since Terrence Jones against Auburn back in 2011. Murray had eight threes, another career high and just one shy of Tony Delk’s Rupp record of nine. Murray is now the first player in UK basketball history to have two 30-point games in his freshman season (he had 33 vs. Ohio State).
“It was okay,” Murray joked of his 35-point performance. “I missed a free throw.”
“Jamal Murray stole the show overall with his ability to make shots. I think he’s still open right now,” Florida’s Michael White quipped. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that. I’m very discouraged with our effort against him. It’s like we didn’t know he was a good shooter.”
Tyler Ulis wasn’t shabby either, scoring 18 points and dishing out a career-high 11 assists for his third double-double of the season. Before the game, Calipari told Ulis this should be a 15-assist game for him, and even though he only (!) got 11, he was tremendous, hitting his first seven shots. White told reporters that Ulis “put on a clinic” defensively, and when he and Murray are playing like that, Kentucky is hard to beat.
“They were incredible. If those guys play like this every day, they’ll have a chance every night. They were fantastic,” White said of Ulis and Murray. “When you let a guy like Jamal Murray really get going early and he’s got his mojo going and Ulis is playing as well as he played today, they’re capable of beating anyone in college basketball.”
That we know.
With Alex Poythress out, Isaac Humphries stepped up
Five minutes before the game, Calipari found out that Alex Poythress’ right knee (the non-surgically repaired one) was bothering him and he wouldn’t be able to play. With Alex out, Kentucky’s bigs needed to step up inside, and they did. Isaac Humphries’ performance was the most promising, the Aussie big man chipping in four points, six rebounds, and two blocks in eleven minutes.
“He earned his space, and I’m so happy for him because he has worked so hard and hasn’t had the opportunity, and what he did was he took advantage, and we all look and say, he needs to play. Let him play. And then you’ve got to stop waiting on some other guys, you’ve got to say, hey, he deserves it,” Calipari said afterwards.
In further proof that Tyler Ulis is half point guard/half coach, Ulis told reporters he’s been talking to Kenny Payne for a while about how he thinks Isaac can help inside, and Humphries said Ulis challenged him to play well before the game.
“Through the whole process of me not really playing a lot, I’ve kept in mind that Tyler does think I can be out there and every day, I really do think about that little thing that he says,” Isaac said. “That’s another reason that’s pushed me through mentally are his little comments to me. Today before the game when he said that, I got really fired up and I thought well, I’ve got to do this because you’ve been batting for me and now I’ve got to prove to everyone else that you’re right and I can do it.”
Isaac felt so good that he even flexed after a big block:
“It felt great. I’ve been waiting for a moment to do that little — I don’t know what you call it,” Isaac said of his flex. “I’ve been waiting for so long and finally I got an opportunity to do it.”
Calipari put his players through the wringer in practice this week to inspire more physical play, and for today, it seemed to work. Kentucky outrebounded Florida 37-28 and four players finished with six rebounds apiece: Marcus Lee, Jamal Murray, Derek Willis, and Isaac Humphries. Alex will get x-rays on that knee tomorrow, which was pretty much the only update Calipari had on the injury after the game.
“I don’t know, he’ll get checked out tomorrow,” Cal said. “I think it was swelled a little bit and they said don’t play.”
Dominique Hawkins’ ankle was also bothering him to the point he sat out. Has there been a game this season in which the entire team was 100% healthy?
After a meltdown in Knoxville, Calipari had his players “beat the crap out of each other for two days in practice,” and it resulted in a much better defensive effort. Kentucky held Florida to 36.7% shooting in the first half and 39.6% overall. Calipari was pleased.
“What we did Thursday, and literally the people, there were people in the building, we went for two and a half hours, and it was a body-to-body, mano-Ã¡-mano, rebound, defend, play. I was mean at times, but that wasn’t what it was. It was the bar was raised of what we were accepting. And I thought guys were terrific.”
The Cats are back in the hunt
With Texas A&M losing to South Carolina and a date with the Gamecocks on Saturday, Kentucky is now back in the hunt for first place in the SEC. Today’s win was further proof that when the Cats are clicking, they can be dominant, but before you get too confident, remember that with this group, even a 21-point lead can disappear in the blink of an eye. (Because of that, admit it, you were a little nervous when Florida cut it to 13 in the second half.)
Calipari said that while today’s win was encouraging, this team still has a long way to go.
“There’s just so many little things that you cannot be what you all want us to be until we can play 40 minutes of basketball, dig in and play. Every possession matters on defense. We’re not close to that right now,” Cal said. “We’ve got a month, so within a month, I’ve got to get them convinced. They’re fighting me. They don’t think we have to, and I say, well, let’s think back to Tennessee.”
Yeah, yeah. Let’s just enjoy this for now, okay?