Cats Back on Defensive Track after Georgia Win

Since the emergence of Derek Willis, Kentucky has made consistent strides on offense.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats took a significant step forward at the other end of the floor.

“I’d say we’ve been fighting,” Jamal Murray said. “We’ve been playing together more and trusting each other more on defense. That’s our biggest thing. We just communicate a lot more and been focusing a lot.”

UK scarcely allowed visiting Georgia an inch to operate in a dominant 82-48 victory. The No. 22/21 Cats (18-6, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) held the Bulldogs (13-9, 6-5 SEC) to 22-percent shooting and 0.75 points per possession, UK’s best defensive total of the season. And most incredibly, UK kept Georgia from making a field goal for an incredible stretch of nearly 18 minutes during which the Bulldogs missed 22 straight shots.

“It just snowballed on us and we could never recover,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said.

UK is now looking for a similar snowball effect, as the performance came on the heels of another good one on Saturday when UK held Florida to 61 points.

“I mean one guy starts bringing energy and it’s like it’s just going downhill, everybody else is going to come with it, and if you don’t then Coach is probably going to take you out because once you hit that level you don’t want it to stop,” Derek Willis said. “You want it to keep going and going. It’s just how it is.”

Sustaining that defensive momentum is key because it wasn’t long ago that UK was on a similar roll. The Cats stymied Vanderbilt and Missouri in back-to-back wins two weeks ago before Kansas and Tennessee solved them in two lackluster defensive outings.

“It was weird because we were playing so good defensively and maybe we started working on offense and doing a couple other things, different actions and just kinda got away from defense,” said Willis, who had 11 points and six rebounds to continue his emergence in SEC play.

The offense took a step forward, but it turned out to be at the cost of UK’s defense. John Calipari wasn’t about to let that go on any longer.

“Now we're back playing defense, and if you walked in our practice, you're not seeing us play much offense,” Calipari said. “We're really working on our team defense, the ability to fight through a possession, to finish off a possession, to scramble, to not only play your man, play one more, the stuff we normally teach here. So you see them, like I said, if you make it an emphasis, they will do it.”

On Tuesday, that defensive emphasis even paved the way for some offense.

UK forced Georgia into 15 turnovers, as the Wildcat backcourt badly outplayed the Bulldogs experienced trio of Kenny Gaines, J.J. Frazier and Charles Mann. The Cats scored 15 points off turnovers and 10 on fast breaks. 

“We’re just letting our defense translate to our offense and getting out on the break and outrunning teams with our speed and our guards and our bigs that can run,” Murray said. “We’re just really focused on finishing defensive plays and getting after it.”

Finishing was no issue for Murray on either end of the floor. On the heels of a 35-point explosion, Murray went for another 24 points, burying 6-of-10 3-point attempts. 

“I’m just finally hitting shots,” Murray said. “I don’t really feel like I’m hot or anything. I’m just hitting timely baskets, hitting open shots that I should be making and just trying to get open.”

Murray, as good a shooter as he may be, likely won’t continue to hit from the outside at the 14-for-20 clip he has in his last two games, but he and his team don’t want to let this short-term roll stop.

“We just gotta keep our energy going, keep our momentum going and translate our energy to our next game,” Murray said. “Have good practices and good shootarounds and make sure we’re locked in on what Coach is saying. … We just gotta stay focused and stay in the right state of mind.”