Defense Stifles Stony Brook, Sends UK into Second Round
DES MOINES, Iowa – If Kentucky was going to advance deep in the NCAA Tournament, odds are the Wildcats would have to survive an extended cold spell.
They got one of them out of the way right away.
“First games are always hard in this tournament, in any tournament play,” John Calipari said. “We were a little shaky in the first half, but we played good enough defensively to be OK.”
UK, after closing the regular season and three games of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on an offensive tear, couldn’t hit a thing in the first half of a first-round matchup with Stony Brook. At the end of a half that saw them shoot just 11 of 34 (32.4 percent) and make nary a 3-pointer, the Cats led 33-19 anyway.
While the offense would come around in the second half – and in a big way – defense allowed fourth-seeded UK (27-8) to overcome an uncharacteristic first 20 minutes and carried the Cats to an 85-77 victory over No. 13 Stony Brook (26-7).
Defense was the biggest question mark for a Kentucky team picked by many to advance to the Final Four, and rightfully so what with the Cats’ 71st-ranked defense by kenpom.com. Though they will face more dynamic offenses if they continue to advance – starting with fifth-seeded Indiana on Saturday – Thursday’s first-round win was a step in the right direction.
“I think that’s how it has to be,” Marcus Lee said. “Defense should always come first because defense makes offense easier.”
In addition to sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis breaking the UK single-season assists record previously held by John Wall, UK set an all-time NCAA Tournament record with 15 blocks. It was a record previously set by Kentucky against UCLA in 1998.
“That’s crazy,” Lee said. “That’s honestly an amazing thing. Hopefully we break it again in the next couple weeks. We enjoy breaking records here. That would be a really great thing to have two of Kentucky 2016 up there. That’s huge for us as bigs, knowing that we came so far to get to this point and the bigs figured things out.”
No one has come further than Skal Labissiere.
Against Stony Brook, he was faced with Jameel Warney, exactly the kind of player who has given him trouble throughout his freshman season. Described by Isaiah Briscoe as a “beast,” the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Warney seemed likely to be a handful. Instead, it was Labissiere and the Wildcats who gave Warney and the Seawolves fits. Labissiere finished with a dozen points, four rebounds and a season-high tying six blocks.
“I was just trying to be a presence for my teammates,” Labissiere said. “Whenever everything broke down I was just trying to help them out, so I was alert on defense and that’s what I did.”
Warney would end up with 23 points and 15 rebounds after a big second half, most of his production coming with the game well in hand, but he shot just 10 of 21 from the field. He was shooting 63.7 percent coming into the game, but the double teams UK threw at him had an effect.
“They were being Kentucky,” Warney said. “They are a great defensive team. They were really athletic. … You can't take away from their athleticism, and it's a different level being face-to-face than just seeing them on TV.”
UK has always had that kind of length and athleticism, but it hasn’t consistently translated to results like Thursday night’s. The Cats held Stony Brook to 20-of-76 (26.3 percent) shooting and 0.78 points per possession.
“It was pretty good,” Calipari said. “And, again, to be able to hold a team like we did and block the shots and do the stuff that we did, you know, follow a game plan, which this team has struggled with at times. They did -- our shootarounds are better. Our game planning is better. You know, they know things are at stake now.”
The stakes will certainly be high when Kentucky faces rival Indiana on Saturday, and the Cats will need their offense to hum as it did in the second half to beat the explosive Hoosiers. UK shot 22 of 29 (75.9 percent) after the break and left their opponents raving.
“I mean, whew, that is a really good team,” Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell said.
“We had a great game plan to try and stop them, but once you get on the floor with them you can see how talented they are, great guards, athletic bigs,” Warney said. “They are going to be in the Final Four and they're a great team and we tried our hardest.”
Calipari will likely want to pump the brakes on any Final Four talk, but he likes the upward trajectory his team’s on. Now he wants it continue.
“This team is (making strides),” Calipari said. “The one thing I told them afterwards, it's not just about being consistent. You've got to keep growing throughout this tournament. So let's take what we learned from this game and let's build on it a little bit. It's not just playing consistent, it's getting better.”