Cats Host Tigers on Wednesday in SEC Action

In the span of a week, prospects for Kentucky’s season flipped.

One Saturday, the Wildcats blew a double-digit lead at Auburn on the way to their second loss in four games.

Kentucky vs. Missouri
Wed., Jan. 27 - 9 p.m. ET
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.
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UK 2015-16 Team Stats UM
15-4 Record 8-11
5-2 Conference Record 1-5
.468 FG% .426
.405 Opp FG% .410
.319 3FG% .313
.667 FT% .704
77.4 PPG 67.8
39.4 RPG 35.3
5.5 BPG 2.9
13.4 APG 11.8
6.4 SPG 5.7
The next Saturday, they dismantled a talented Vanderbilt team for their second straight impressive double-digit win in three days.

So what happened?

“We just talked about getting back to our roots,” assistant coach Tony Barbee said. “We wanted to kind of change the direction we’re headed especially coming out of that Auburn game. It was a renewed sense of focus.”

The Auburn game was an undisputedly unpleasant experience, but in hindsight it may have been just what the doctor ordered for a UK team that has battled inconsistency this season.

“It was a tough environment to play in,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “We got Auburn’s best game. After that game I think it was a wake-up call.”

That’s especially true on defense. 

Auburn torched UK from 3-point range to the tune of 12-for-26 shooting, a troubling total considering the Cats’ next two opponents both ranked in the top 11 nationally in 3-point shooting. Kentucky, however, responded to the challenge, holding Vandy and Arkansas to a combined seven made 3s in 27 tries.

“There’s been a renewed sense and renewed emphasis here on the defensive end of the floor because that’s where the changes happen,” Barbee said. “Guarding the 3-point line has been a big key. It’s been a focus from day one. Maybe the guys are finally paying attentions to it.”

Good 3-point defense doesn’t happen without good communication. 

“The main part is just talking,” Briscoe said. “You can never talk too much on defense, and Coach (John Calipari) thinks that when we’re talking that’s when we’re at our best.”

For a young team, that’s easier said than done.

“Because we’re all coming from different places where we all were the man wherever we came from,” Briscoe said. “Just trying to get everybody to come together and just talk together as a team was one of the big things that we tried to get accomplished. I think that when we do do that our defense is better, our offense is better and we’re playing much better.”

The charge now for UK (15-4, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) is to sustain that momentum, starting with a matchup with Missouri at 9 p.m. on Wednesday. The Tigers (8-11, 1-5 SEC) are at the bottom of league standings, which presents a different kind of challenge for Kentucky, particularly with a trip to top-five Kansas looming on Saturday.

“The consistency of not worrying who your opponent is but just preparing to play your best,” Barbee said. “We lean on our veteran players to bring it every night. I think Tyler (Ulis) is the guy who brings it every night and plays with a sense of urgency. We’ll just have to get our freshmen to catch up to speed. It doesn’t matter who you play; with what we wear across our chest in Kentucky, everybody is going to bring their best.”

The Cats got lessons in exactly that in both their loss at Auburn and in nearly blowing another big lead just days prior against Mississippi State.

“We’re up 20 points against Mississippi State, they still fighting and come back down and they have a chance to win the game,” Briscoe said. “I’m kind of used to that now, but like I said earlier, we play tomorrow against a good Missouri team, we’re going to get a scouting report for them, and hopefully come out with a W. Then practice Thursday and Friday to get ready for Kansas on Saturday.”

Murray Named SEC Freshman of the Week

Freshman sharpshooter Jamal Murray was named the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Week after helping lead UK to a pair of double-digit wins at Arkansas and against Vanderbilt this week on Monday.

Murray averaged 18.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in the two wins. The honor marked the second such award of his career.

The Kitchener, Ontario native continued to be a threat offensively while emphasizing his defensive performance in the two wins this week. Murray and Co. helped lead UK to its first win in Arkansas under the direction of John Calipari on Thursday. Murray poured in 19 points and added seven rebounds. He also contributed a block and a steal in the victory.

Murray followed up that performance less than 48 hours later with 18 points, including three 3-pointers, while adding seven more rebounds, three steals, and another block in the impressive rout of Vanderbilt.

UK Continues Improved Play in Dominainting Win Over Vanderbilt

Tyler Ulis scored 21 points, Jamal Murray added 18 and Kentucky shot 64 percent in the second half to cruise past Vanderbilt 76-57 on Saturday. The Wildcats earned their second straight double-figure win.

The Wildcats (15-4, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) led throughout thanks to strong shooting, finishing at 55 percent from the field. Ulis’ scoring was balanced, with 11 of his points coming during a second half in which Kentucky led by as many as 23. He finished 9 of 13 from the field with two 3-pointers and five assists in 34 minutes.

Murray was 7 of 13 from the field, including 3 of 6 from long range. Alex Poythress got Kentucky started in both halves for 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting with many coming inside.

Kentucky held Vanderbilt (11-8, 3-4 SEC) to 32 percent shooting and 33 percent from behind the arc halting the Commodores’ three-game winning streak. Vanderbilt entered the contest having made 29 of 62 3-pointers in its last three games.

Kentucky controlled the paint 34-18 while finishing even with Vanderbilt on the boards 32-32. The Wildcats rolled despite shooting just six free throws, making four.

Other notables:

• Kentucky extended its home winning streak to 31 games
• UK’s 55 percent field-goal percentage was its best of the year
• UK tied the Commodores in rebounding at 32 each. UK has a 14-1 record this season when winning or tying the rebounding but is 1-3 when losing the carom gathering
• Kentucky has committed just 13 turnovers in its last 80 minutes of action
• UK has had a player score at least 20 points in all seven SEC games this season. The last time UK had a player score at least 20 in the first seven SEC games was 2009
• The win marked John Calipari’s 100th victory over an SEC foe including SEC Tournament action. He is the second fastest to 100 wins in 125 tries against league foes in program history (Adolph Rupp - 119)
• Ulis has hit 27 of 28 free throws (.964) over the last four games.
• Murray has scored at least 12 points in 18 of his first 19 UK games. Only Cotton Nash (12-plus in 35 of his first 36 games) and Bill Spivey (12-plus) in 24 of his first 25) have better starts
• After starting the game with two baskets, Poythress finished with 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting. UK is 7-0 this season when he scores in double figures
• Junior Derek Willis led UK in rebounding for the third consecutive outing with nine rebounds
• Willis scored 77 points in his first 40 games as a Wildcat; he has now scored 76 in his last 12 games