UK’s Full Arsenal on Display in Quarterfinal Win
In order to provide fans with additional coverage for the 2016 postseason, CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com will be sharing stories throughout tournament play to help feed the never-ending appetite the Big Blue Nation has for all things Kentucky basketball.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Kentucky made its way through the regular season rarely playing at full strength, often relying on the likes of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray to shoulder an abnormally heavy load.
But entering the postseason, the Wildcats are healthy. John Calipari, understandably, was excited about the prospect of having a quiver full of arrows, so to speak.
“What we have for the first time and no one is really talked about it is I have a full team,” Calipari said on Thursday. “Now you’ve got Dom (Hawkins) healthy. You’ve got Derek (Willis) healthy. You’ve got Alex (Poythress) healthy. We haven’t had that all year, and so we’re coming together at the right time of the year.”
UK’s performance in its Southeastern Conference Tournament opener showed why Calipari is so excited.
Calipari got meaningful contributions from up and down his roster and the Cats (24-8) cruised past Alabama (18-14) and into the SEC Tournament semifinals in the process, 85-59. Eight players were on the floor for double-digit minutes Friday night and they all played a role as UK posted a season-best 1.47 points per possession.
“From the jump, everybody on the team was just in a rhythm,” Poythress said. “We were playing great defense, and it led to offense. Everybody was confident out there, making shots, and just getting in a rhythm and doing what you can do offensively.”
The win sets up a matchup with Georgia at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Bulldogs came back to topple South Carolina, 65-64.
Jamal Murray, as is his custom, led UK in scoring. He had 23 points – including another five 3-pointers – to extend his streak of 20-point games to 11, but this time a teammate joined him in reaching the plateau. Poythress scored 20, giving him 59 on 20-of-24 shooting in three wins over the Crimson Tide.
“I don’t know,” Poythress said when asked about his play against Alabama. “I don’t understand it. I guess it’s the defense, you know.”
Poythress did most of his damage inside against Alabama’s defense the first two times out, but he expanded his game to the perimeter on Thursday. He hit a career-best four 3-pointers in five tries, while UK made a season-high 13 in 22 attempts as a team.
“Alex, I’ve never actually seen him shoot like that since I’ve been on a Kentucky team,” Hawkins said. “He shot excellent tonight and he played outstanding for us.”
So did Hawkins.
The junior guard checked in for the first time a little more than eight minutes in with the Cats trailing 12-10. Energy was lacking a bit at the time, but Hawkins wasn’t about to let that continue. On his first three offensive possessions, he assisted on a Derek Willis 3-pointer, hit a trey of his own and made a pretty floater.
UK would never trail again.
“I definitely get more aggressive when I’m able to knock down a shot,” Hawkins said. “I feel like I was comfortable out there with the guys. In practice I’ve been performing well as well.”
Hawkins also has a history of stepping up when it matters most. In UK’s run to the national championship game his freshman year, he played a crucial role after spending most of the season on the bench.
“I guess there’s something about March,” Hawkins said. “I’m just always ready at that time.”
Readiness is something the Cats all seem to have in common at this point.
Ulis was his usual All-American self in tallying 17 points and five assists, but Isaiah Briscoe spent more time on the ball. Whether it was a strategic move on Calipari’s part or Alabama forcing Kentucky’s hand, Briscoe responded. In fact, he became the first player in more than three months to wrest the single-team lead in assists away from Ulis.
“They were making shots and I was just trying to get people open,” Briscoe said.
In the post, it was a balanced effort. UK’s bigs combined to do a little bit of everything, but individually each only did what he excels at. Skal Labissiere showcased his versatile inside-out scoring, contributing seven points on mid-range jumpers and post moves. Meanwhile, Willis stretched the floor and scored five points and Marcus Lee added energy with five rebounds and one highlight-reel alley-oop.
Though Murray and Ulis will always be the standard bearers for UK, the days of them having to carry their team on their own are long gone.
“Tyler and Jamal are always going to have it because they are just great players,” Poythress said. “But we feel like everybody on this team can score confidently. Marcus, Skal in the post, Derek can shoot, Dom can hit open shots, Isaiah can drive. So it’s like not just them two.”
For Ulis – who has done everything in his power to lift his teammates – that’s satisfying.
“When everyone plays with confidence and we get guys going in a rhythm, it’s hard to stop us,” Ulis said.
For Calipari – whose season-long goal has been to have a team empowered and balanced as it is now – it’s even more rewarding.
“What you have now is Skal scoring around the basket, Alex scoring around the basket,” Calipari said. “We didn't have that a month ago. Marcus Lee is into the role that he is. Run that court, dunk balls, tip, offensive rebound, and let these other guys do that skill stuff, and he's doing great at it now. And then you've got Derek Willis who's a stretch four, and he makes the game different.”
For opponents – who have watched UK advance to four Final Fours in the last five seasons – it’s downright scary.
“Well, I think you say, if they make a bunch of 3s, we've got problems,” Calipari said.