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Defensive strides on display in final non-conference outing

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Ryan Harrow had 15 points, eight assists and four steals in UK's 90-38 win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Ryan Harrow had 15 points, eight assists and four steals in UK's 90-38 win over Eastern Michigan on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In many ways, Ryan Harrow has been the story of this Kentucky basketball season.

First, talk centered around how he would assume the pressure-packed mantle of playing point guard for John Calipari. Then it became about his illness and when he would return to the team. When he came back, it was all about how he would settle back into running his team. When he started to do that, everyone marveled at his play-making ability.

Defense, though, has rarely figured significantly into the conversation. But after the way he tirelessly hounded the ball on Wednesday night, Harrow made it a topic.

"He played, he competed, he battled, and he got punched in the face to today on a play and it didn't affect him," Calipari said. "So I'm more than pleased."

Defending the point of attack, Harrow set the tone for UK's best defensive performance of the season in a 90-38 win over Eastern Michigan. The Wildcats forced 19 turnovers and the Eagles shot just 15 of 62 (24.2 percent). Harrow had four of Kentucky's nine steals.

"(Calipari) just told us that if we put pressure on the ball that they'll turn it over," Harrow said. "That's what today I was just focusing on, making sure I put pressure on the ball. Even if I didn't steal it, it would give somebody else the opportunity to get the ball."

Sure, Harrow (15 points) scored in double figures for the fourth straight game and he had a season-high eight assists. Yes, it was nice for Julius Mays to score 13 points and see three 3-pointers fall after struggling mightily with his shot in recent weeks. Of course, UK's 18-for-24 free-throw shooting was encouraging after the sub-50-percent effort on Saturday at Louisville. Absolutely, Alex Poythress' energy in a 16-point, five-rebound performance was a positive coming off three days of individual workouts with Coach Cal.

But UK's team defense can't be overlooked, and it often started with a tweak at the top of UK's full-court pressure. Starting for the second game in a row, Willie Cauley-Stein moved into the backcourt on the press to serve as a disruptive force and help trap guards on whom he has as much as a foot in height.

"I like Willie up there," Calipari said. "It's tough when you've got a seven footer running at you now."

Mays can imagine the scenario and he'd prefer to avoid having an oversized high-school wide receiver bearing down on him.

"It'd be tough," Mays said. "One, you can't even see over him. A guy might be open and you're liable not to see it. It's hard. Our length and our pressure affected them."

That sounds a lot like a player who's beginning to understand that arguably the biggest reason why John Calipari's first three Kentucky teams reached the Elite Eight, the Final Four and won a national championship.

"We've made major improvements on the defensive end," Mays said. "It's what we've practiced. That's what we do most of the time in practice is being competitive on defense. Now we've having it carry into the game and we're making major strides."

There were always flashes of that kind of defensive potential with this team, but a few possessions would pass and a player's focus would wane. The Cats certainly weren't perfect in that regard, but they were as close to it as they have been at any point this year even as the lead ballooned.

"Early in the season, you see we had a team down and barely let them score in the first half and it's easy for us to just start looking at the score and to let up," Mays said. "Now, it's us just competing for two halves and not worrying if we're up 10 or if we're up by 40. We're trying to win by 60 or 80 instead of being satisfied with a 20-point win."

Wins by those kinds of large margins are likely to be rare with the Cats just eight days away from opening Southeastern Conference play at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10, but they see this 52-point victory as well as the loss that preceded it as a springboard.

"Obviously it didn't go the way we wanted it to at Louisville, but I think with the loss we learned a lot and we made strides," Mays said. "We had some plays that we wish we could have back, but obviously we can't. I think it was good for us now that we're going into SEC play, I think it'll help us."

Even with the names of rivals and ranked opponents looming in the coming months, Calipari's focus remains undeterred. He's not thinking about the Vandys, the Floridas, the Tennessees or the Missouris of the world. Just like it will be for one final week of Coach Cal before classes begin, it's all Kentucky all the time.

"I'm worried about us getting better," Calipari said. "I'm not worried about any other team in the country."

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