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Jones shakes off struggles, leads UK in league-opening win

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Terrence Jones had 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting in a 79-64 win over South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones had 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting in a 79-64 win over South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With the way Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had played of late, it was easy to point to the pair of freshman as Kentucky's two best players.

Davis was coming off four consecutive double-doubles entering a game against South Carolina that opened the Wildcats' Southeastern Conference schedule, while Kidd-Gilchrist was just a week removed from 24-point, 19-rebound effort against Louisville that left many buzzing about his National Player of the Year candidacy.

Incredibly, neither Davis nor Kidd-Gilchrist was the UK player tabbed by nearly every major outlet as a preseason All-American. The Wildcat touted as one of the nation's best players was sophomore Terrence Jones, but he found himself mired in a slump while the two freshmen burst on the scene. Following a 20-point outing that saw him hit 8-of-9 field goals in 79-64 win, any talk of a slump came to an abrupt halt.

"He played great," point guard Marquis Teague said. "That's the Terrence we know and that's how we want him to play the rest of the year."

Jones' performance comes on the heels of the worst stretch of his young career. He averaged just 5.0 points over his previous five outings, which began with UK's lone loss of the season against Indiana and was prolonged largely due to a dislocated pinky he suffered on Dec. 17 against Chattanooga.

"With my finger getting hurt, I feel my confidence got shot just because I didn't want to be aggressive because of the pain," Jones said. "I wasn't playing like they've seen me play in practice and it happened at the wrong time with me not having a good game the game before it happened."

Jones said before Saturday's game that he was planning to focus on rebounding and allow his teammates to do the scoring, but he capitalized on the room the Gamecocks allowed him. South Carolina threw a mix of matchup zone and full-court press at the Wildcats and Jones didn't let any of the holes he found go to waste.

"The position I was in during our breaks and our zone offense was what they were giving me and we took advantage of that," Jones said. "Coach prepared us well for the press and the zone and we went out there and executed because Marquis really led us knowing when to score and when not to."

Jones' reemergence wasn't quite so simple in his coach's mind. John Calipari has been drilling in Jones' mind that the only way for him to overcome his injury and his struggles was to focus on his hustle before his offense, which is exactly what he did on Saturday.

"He flew up and down the court," Calipari said. "When you run that fast, and you try to play that hard, you'll be aggressive offensively.  When you are passive on defense and passive going for balls and you don't want to mix it up, there is no possible way you can be aggressive offensively."

Over the past week, Jones' intensity in practice has been lauded by his teammates. Through that effort on the practice floor, he began to reestablish the self-belief that made him a preseason All-American and overcome the tentativeness that had accompanied his injury.

"I think the extra workouts and extra treatments and preparing myself better (allowed me) to play with more confidence and be less afraid of getting my hand hit," Jones said.

Jones wasn't the only Wildcat to play with a renewed sense of confidence. Teague, UK's point guard, played one of his best games as a Wildcat in Jones' estimation.

"When it comes to making decisions, I feel it was one of his best games," Jones said. "With so many great players around him at point guard, when to make the pass and when to score is real tough. Today he did the best job."

Teague committed just two turnovers and scored 17 points. He also had four assists and three rebounds and hit 4-of-5 free throws. He struggled early in the season from the line, hitting just 15-of-27 but has upped his season average 69.4 percent in hitting 19 of his last 22.

"I've been working on my free throws a lot before and after practice so I'm confident at the line," Teague said. "I just go in and I know if I go to the hoop and get fouled, I'm going to make my free throws."

Just as importantly, Teague handled South Carolina's press like a seasoned veteran.

"Marquis Teague played well," Calipari said. "They tested our press attack, our spacing was better.  Instead of him trying to beat it, he was letting us try to beat it, and that's the difference."

With a freshman point guard, most coaches would want to avoid the press, but not Calipari. Most of the time South Carolina used that press on Saturday, UK dished out punishment in the form of alley-oops and "and-ones."

"We feel like we're going to score if we get past the press because we have Anthony back there for dunks and Terrence," Teague said. "Once we get the ball through the press, it's a basket so Coach Cal kind of likes when they press us."

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