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Booker finds his stroke, shoots UK past BU

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Devin Booker scored 15 points, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, in UK's 89-65 win over Boston University on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Devin Booker scored 15 points, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, in UK's 89-65 win over Boston University on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Joe Jones used every motivational ploy at his disposal.

He told his Boston University team Kentucky would have trouble sustaining the energy the Wildcats used to blow out Kansas on Tuesday. He showed them the way Buffalo played in building a five-point halftime lead on UK just five days ago.

Jones believed in everything he was saying, but there was one fact he was still resigned to before he took his Terriers into Rupp Arena.

"They have so many guys that are so good, one of them is going to get hot," Jones said.

On Friday night, that someone was Devin Booker.

Booker was the second-half star as UK (4-0) overcame a sluggish first half that saw the Cats manage just a five-point lead. He scored 12 of his 15 points after the break and UK outscored the Terriers 49-30 to register an 89-65 win in front of 22,485 fans at Rupp Arena.

"I finally got to see a shot go in," Booker said. "That's good to see, and most of all I wanted to get other people involved and I feel like we did that. We had a slow start, but in the second half we pulled it together."

Through his first three collegiate games, the sharp-shooting Booker managed just one make in 11 tries from 3-point range. The message delivered to him by everyone from John Calipari, his father, former NBA player Melvin Booker, and teammate Aaron Harrison was the same.

"I had a lot of talk with Coach and my dad," Booker said. "They just said, 'Keep shooting. It's going to fall.' And I came out tonight and it did."

Booker hit 4 of 6 from 3 against Boston and scored five of the first seven points in the 23-8 run UK used to close the game.

"You just gotta keep your confidence," said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 19 points. "That's what being a shooting guard is. No matter how many shots you miss, you gotta keep going because that's what your team needs you to do: score the ball."

In spite of that positional label, Booker did more than just score on Friday. To go with his four rebounds, Booker had seven assists, the most for any Wildcat so far this season.

"Not very often," Booker said when he was asked if he's had many such games, "but it's easy when you have teammates like this."

The teammate on his mind when he said that was Dominique Hawkins, who was on the receiving end of Booker's last assist. Booker, for the fourth time of the night, lobbed a pass over BU's sagging 2-3 zone, but this one appeared out of his hand to be too high for the 6-foot Hawkins.

It wasn't.

Hawkins, making his first career start with Alex Poythress day to day due to illness, rose over a defender and slammed home the pass for UK's final points of the night on what was unquestionably the dunk of an early season that's been full of them.

"I don't even know how high I went up for it," Hawkins said. "I'll have to watch the video after this is over.

"That lob was incredible," Booker said. "Seeing it from my view, it was crazy."

Booker, having seen what Hawkins did, will surely be eager to throw more such alley-oops, no matter how he's shooting. In high school, Booker was a prolific scorer who had to put the ball in the basket for his team to win. Now, he's just another star in Coach Cal's constellation.

That means he's learning how contribute when his shot isn't falling.

"It's an adjustment that you have to make from high school to college," Booker said. "And like I said, I feel like it's coming along right now. But like I said, when you have a team like this, if you're not shooting or not scoring you can involve yourself in different ways to contribute to the win."

Booker had most of the ways covered against BU, but he still wasn't immune to constructive criticism from Coach Cal.

With UK going away from its platoons more often in Poythress' absence, Calipari immediately yanked Booker when he failed to throw the ball ahead to Aaron Harrison on a fast break. Similarly, Karl-Anthony Towns had a breakdown defending a pick-and-roll and Trey Lyles had trouble defending smaller opponents on the dribble.

It's all part of the process.

"They're still learning," Calipari said. "They're going to do stuff like that."

But the talent, indisputably, is there. And though Booker is beginning to learn to contribute in multiple ways, when he's doing what he's known for, look out.

"It's nice to see when he makes shots, we become a little bit different," Calipari said.

Video: Highlights from UK's win over Boston U.

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Video: Coach Cal's post-BU press conference

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Kentucky fell to Oakland in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, 2-0. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky fell to Oakland in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, 2-0. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As his team's season ended, Johan Cedergren was left feeling both frustration and optimism.

The frustration stemmed from the way Kentucky had finished. The Wildcats' regular season ended a lone result shy of a conference championship. More disappointment would follow in the postseason, with first-round defeats in both the Conference USA and NCAA tournaments.

The optimism was a result of what Cedergren sees ahead for UK. His developing program will return all but one regular contributor from a 2014 squad that had one of the best seasons in school history.

It was those two conflicting feelings that led Cedergren to declare his expectations for the future in no uncertain terms.

"As hard as it is to say right now, I think the future is bright and I will say as firmly as I can that this will not happen again," Cedergren said. "We are not going to go 0-3 for the games that matter."

A 2-0 defeat against Oakland on Thursday night capped that three-game skid to close a 10-6-3 season. Playing without top playmaker Napo Matsoso and leading goal scorer Justin Laird due to a mandatory card suspension and knee injury, respectively, the Wildcats were unable to overcome an experienced Oakland team.

"When it got tough, I thought that they excelled and maybe we have some work to do in terms in the mental toughness and especially when the games little tougher," Cedergren said. "I thought it was a very big stage for some of the younger guys that were asked to carry a bigger role because of injuries and suspensions and I don't think we were up for that."

Or perhaps more appropriately, they weren't up for it yet.

A year ago, the Cats, who fielded a roster featuring 20 freshmen and sophomores, called on the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament to fuel them through a grueling offseason. This time around, they reached the big stage, but will look to use the mistakes that caused them to come up short as fuel to win the next time they reach it.

"Anytime in your life, these are the type of games you want to play in," goalkeeper Callum Irving said. "When they don't live up to your expectations, you can go two ways with them. You can either sulk about it and not let it benefit you or you can use it as fuel"

Irving, who nearly swept end-of-season C-USA awards, will return and wear the captain's armband for UK again next season. Five all-conference honorees will rejoin him in 2015, which will be Cedergren's fourth year at the helm.

"Obviously this is not the way you want to end your season but again like Johan said we have a lot to look forward to in the future, as hard as it is to see right now," Irving said. "We have some great players returning, good recruiting class coming in so I mean right now it is just back to the drawing board, back to work but we will move on from here."

Though the Cats will move on when they reassemble for training in January, they don't plan to forget Thursday night altogether. There's still too much to be gained from it.

"For us it's time as a staff and as a squad to grow and develop and to learn from this," Cedergren said. "But we are not sitting here again next year in the NCAA Tournament."

UK has an open date before a season finale at Louisville next Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK has an open date before a season finale at Louisville next Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree is one of the healthy ones.

Unlike many of his teammates, Dupree doesn't have an injury that's forced him to miss any time. He made it through eight games in eight weeks without a sprained ankle, strained muscle or any other malady Mark Stoops has had to publicly address.

He still felt like he got "hit by a truck" by the time the stretch was over.

"Your body feels horrible after a while," Dupree said. "You wake up in the morning, sometimes you don't want to get out of bed because you feel like you want to sleep it off."

With an open date this weekend, Dupree, at long last, got that chance. Following a loss at Tennessee on Saturday, the Wildcats were given days off on both Sunday and Monday to rest and recover.

"It felt good just to lay down, finally, for a long time and just don't worry about anything for that day," Dupree said.

Not only had Dupree and the Cats played on eight straight Saturdays, they had also faced seven Southeastern Conference opponents over that same time period. To say a break was needed would probably be an understatement.

"You get back in there, like I said, Saturday afternoon or Saturday night when you're done, and Sunday certainly, and it's on," Mark Stoops said. "It's on to the next opponent, and it's a full grind. That gets taxing on everybody. The players, they have to come in here Monday and we have to address the issues from the previous game and then on to the next opponent immediately."

Instead, the Cats get to take a breath before they dive headlong into preparing a matchup with Louisville in both teams' regular-season finale next Saturday. Don't think, however, that they forgot about football altogether. Even though there were no official team activities on Monday, groups of players gathered independently to meet and review film with no coaches present.

"It was some of the leaders on the team wanting to step up and make some changes," senior wide receiver Javess Blue said.

Neal Brown, meanwhile, had a film session of his own.

"We do a lot of evaluation," Brown said. "Like over the last couple of days I've watched every play that we've had. Kind of broke it down to every play by different formations and personnel groupings then kind of identifying some problems that have been consistent and going about fixing some things."

Some break, huh?

"With a bye week, of course there's just a little more time to sit (as a coaching staff) and take it in and look at things and see what we have done good and what we've done poorly and try to put them in a position to be successful," Stoops said. "It's our job to put them in a place that they can succeed."

When UK returned to the practice field on Tuesday, that effort continued.

The first step was to focus on some of the little things that began to escape the Cats toward the end of their stretch of eight straight games and a five-game losing streak. With lots of work on blocking and shedding blocks, pass coverage and getting open and one-on-ones with first-teamers, Dupree feels like it's fall camp all over again.

"We are doing all fundamentals this week," Dupree said. "It seems like we started over."

The results, according to Stoops, have been nothing but positive.

"Guys seem to have a little more energy, a little more pop in their step," Stoops said. "Got a chance to go back and do some things, just camp drills as far as competing and doing some things good against good and fundamentally getting better. So it's been a great time for a bye week for us, and I think, like I said, it's been helpful so far, both with rest, healing up some guys and fundamentally getting better."

Stoops said after the loss at Tennessee that "we didn't have a lot in our tank," but the bye week has given the chance for the Cats to refuel. He said he expects UK to be close to 100 percent for the Louisville game, though offensive tackle Kyle Meadows remains a question mark.

More importantly, Stoops sees a team that continues to be coachable and willing to work. The frustration, of course, is there, which is only natural when you've been stuck a win shy of bowl eligibility for two months.

But the Cats are eager for their final chance to break through.

"We know our shortcomings," Stoops said. "We know we all need to do better. But I see a team that's fun to coach, that care, that want to win, that are putting a lot into it."

UK returns to Rupp Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET for a matchup with Boston University. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK returns to Rupp Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET for a matchup with Boston University. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The talk was out there before, but it's intensified in recent days.

Since the Wildcats' dominance of Kansas in the Champions Classic, more columns about their prospects of going unbeaten have been written than even Kentucky fans care to read. The "can UK beat an NBA team?" debate has been kicked up a notch too, with Eric Bledsoe confidently answering yes and ESPN running a poll on the topic with close to 200,000 votes, 52 percent of which were cast for the Cats.

But inside the Joe Craft Center, the mood is different. For the team that did the dominating, it's still November and the victory over Kansas was just that: one victory.

"We just have to keep working," Andrew Harrison said. "We played really hard. A lot of their shots didn't fall and stuff like that, so we know we still have a lot to improve on. It's just the third game of the season. It really doesn't mean anything."

Well, maybe it does mean something.

As poorly as the Jayhawks may have shot, it's impossible to ignore the work UK did on the defensive end in holding Kansas to 40 points, 11 made field goals and 8-of-41 shooting from 2-point range. At the very least, the Cats saw what their physical gifts can do to an opponent.

"With our length and our athletic ability, there's no reason why we can't be a really good defensive team because of our size," said assistant coach John Robic, filling in for John Calipari at UK's regular media availability before a matchup with Boston University (1-1) Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. "And size with athleticism equals - it could be a problem for an opponent. And that's what it was."

It was only a problem for Kansas because UK (3-0) made it so, shrugging off the hype surrounding the first big-stage game of the season and playing team defense.

"That was probably the biggest thing: how they were going to react to a high-level game against a very good top-ranked opponent," Robic said. "We obviously played really well, and I thought everybody responded very, very well in that game."

A year ago in a similar environment, the Cats had to climb uphill after Michigan State built a 10-point lead in the Champions Classic. Last season's freshman-laden group could never overcome the deficit, but this year's team had no such start with all its returning experience.

With the likes of Andrew Harrison leading the way, the four freshmen joining UK's two-platoon system were able to blend in, as much as four players as talented as them can blend in anyway.

"It's good because the pressure's not really on them so they can just go out there relaxed and play," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm sure they had fun and they played great."

UK's sophomore point guard has taken an active role in setting the tone for the freshmen so far, both leading by example and by stepping up his vocal presence. After he arrived on campus just before the start of the fall semester, he was unable to quickly command his team as he would have liked. Now, he's confident and comfortable in the role.

"He's just playing more loose and more relaxed," Aaron Harrison said. "He's just having more fun and I think that's the biggest thing."

In spite of that, Andrew Harrison was critical of himself after the Kansas game, taking the blame for a sluggish offensive start that saw UK make just two field goals in the first five-plus minutes.

"It's just better execution in the first half, and that's on me," he said. "I think we were a little tired the first little segment the blue team had or whatever, but it started working out. You get your second wind and I just tried to make sure the freshmen weren't that nervous and stuff like that."

With the Kansas game in the rearview window, Andrew Harrison will shift his focus to making sure those freshmen realizing the work ahead of them, starting with Friday's game against Boston University. The coaching staff will be doing the same.

"Each and every day, we have to get better at what we need to do as a team, whether it's defensively or offensively," Robic said. "And if we do that, we know that we're going to give it our best effort when we go out there, and hopefully tomorrow shows improvement for us."

Video: Robic previews Boston University matchup

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Recent Comments

  • Tom Moore: Since Tubby 98 and 2003-2004 team which should've won it all, Kentucky fans ( I am true blue ) have read more
  • John Mylant: Kentucky verses Kansas I am a UK fan but bringing this into perspective, this was just one of those games. read more
  • Catherine: We have the Blue Platoon and the White Platoon, I say we should name the rest team "The Closers"! read more
  • Sandy: Great game. I couldn't take my eyes off in the second half. Proud of all of you. I thought Epps read more
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