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Patience pays off as Johnson sparks dominant second half

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Dakari Johnson scored eight points in UK's 85-63 SEC-opening win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson scored eight points in UK's 85-63 SEC-opening win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari had plenty to talk about in the locker room with his team down 40-37 at halftime to Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs' 10 fast-break points surely came up, as did Kentucky's 14 3-point attempts. He talked about carrying over the camaraderie the team had built during "Camp Cal" through better communication, as well as taking better care of the basketball.

But there was another message, delivered to a specific player, likely unanticipated by most.

"Before the second half started, Coach Cal told me he was going to put me in and just to post up and try to make moves because they were playing, I think, a 1-3-1 zone or a 2-3 zone so there were a lot of openings," Dakari Johnson said.

Johnson had played all of one minute in the first half, registering only a personal foul on the stat sheet, but Coach Cal sensed opportunity for the 7-foot, 265-pound freshman.

So barely two minutes after the break, Johnson came in for Willie Cauley-Stein. On three successive possessions, he scored, first on an impressive back-to-the-basket move. For an encore, he ran the floor and finished an Alex Poythress lob with a layup in transition. To cap it off, he grabbed a missed James Young 3-pointer, waited for traffic to clear and laid the ball in with some nice footwork.

The exchange turned a tie game into a 57-51 lead that No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) would continue to build on in an 85-63 win over the visiting Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1 SEC). When it ended, Johnson realized he needed a break.

"I was pretty tired," Johnson said. "It was a big momentum swing. I asked to get taken out of the game. I was kind of out of breath."

The breather was well-deserved for Johnson, who finished with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting.

"We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half, but we were getting pushed off the block when we didn't have to be pushed off the block," said assistant John Robic, filling in for Coach Cal at the postgame press conference. "The person that did the best job was Dakari. He got the ball tight. He got it with two hands and was forceful once he caught the ball."

This season, Johnson hasn't always had opportunities to show the talent that made him a five-star prospect. With Willie Cauley-Stein playing the best basketball of his career, Johnson has played double-digit minutes just twice in the last six weeks.

"It's been tough," Johnson said. "I'm so used to playing all the time, but it's been humbling. Just listening to (Calipari) during practice, just getting better each and every day, that's the main thing, to be ready for a game like this."

Thanks to that patient approach, Johnson was ready when his number was called in UK's SEC opener.

"Dakari played huge," said Alex Poythress, who had five thunderous dunks en route to a season-high 12 points. "He's great on defense and on offense. He's been doing it in practice, he's a big body. Just bury him under the rim and just score."

With Julius Randle facing double and triple teams on every touch, Johnson is UK's best option to score with his back to the basket. His ability in the post is what made him such a coveted prospect, and Wednesday served as a reminder.

"That was a big game for him and his confidence, and it's a big game for our team having a 7-foot, 265-pound player in the middle," Robic said.

The dimension Johnson adds on the offensive end has never been in question, but Johnson has struggled to carve out a more significant role because of defense.

With so many of UK's nonconference opponents playing smaller, quicker lineups, Johnson often hasn't had a natural matchup. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has the quickness to guard all five positions, allowing Calipari to implement a switch-everything defense.

Johnson knows what he has to do to overcome that.

"A lot of teams are going to be putting me in pick-and-rolls," Johnson said. "(Coach) said I've been doing a better job on that, so that's the main thing I'm focusing on."

With future SEC opponents featuring more traditional post players, he figures to have more chances to showcase his skills regardless. Johnson, however, is going to stick with the patient approach that yielded his game-changing second-half stretch.

"That's up to Coach Cal," Johnson said when asked about his role. "He's going to put the team in the best position to win the game, so whatever he thinks is fine."

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