Guards Help UK Weather Storm, Bigs Come through in Second Half
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There has been a correlation lately between Kentucky’s best basketball of the season, and strong play from its frontcourt.
But in the first half Saturday at Bridgestone Arena, Kentucky’s bigs struggled while Georgia hit over 61 percent of its field goals. But thanks to the always steady and oftentimes highly explosive UK backcourt, the Cats were able to weather the storm.
“I love how my guards played,” head coach John Calipari said. “I probably played them too many minutes, but I love how they played, and I love what Isaiah (Briscoe) did in the second half.
The Bulldogs couldn’t seem to miss in the first half. After Georgia scored just 48 points total in a 34-point UK demolition at Rupp Arena on Feb. 9, it scored 49 points in the first half alone Saturday, the most by a UK opponent in the opening 20 minutes all season.
Kentucky, however trailed by just five points at the break, thanks, in part, to the stellar play of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who accounted for 32 of UK’s 44 first-half points (72.7 percent). The duo combined to go 10 for 16 from the field while the rest of the Cats shot 4 of 15. Ulis finished with 25 points and five assists, while Murray poured in a team-high 26 points and added three more 3-pointers to his freshman program record.
“I love what I saw,” Coach Cal said. “I love the fact that they shot 60 percent in the first half and didn’t miss any shots and we were hanging around.”
He also loves that Briscoe, the third guard in arguably the nation’s best backcourt, struggled in the first half and not until a long, not-so-calm conversation with Coach Cal in the second half did he kick it into gear. And when he did, he helped turn a game around in which the Cats trailed for the majority of the game only to come out on top, 93-80.
“As a coach, he demands the best out of you,” said Briscoe, who finished with a complete stat line of 12 points, a team-high tying seven rebounds, two assists and a number of momentum-changing plays. “And that’s all he did. I appreciate him for pushing me and to being somebody that obviously I didn’t want to be at the time in the first half. But in the second half, he got the best out of me, and I performed.”
At the time of the talk, Briscoe had scored four points, committed three turnovers and had no assists. Coach Cal put Charles Matthews in the game, and Matthews continued his strong play while Coach Cal celebrated enthusiastically in front of Briscoe.
“He was just saying we’re not accepting anything less than your best,” Alex Poythress said, a wise senior who knows Coach Cal’s tendencies better than anyone on the team. “He knows what we can do, and he expects it out of everybody every time we touch the floor.”
Briscoe re-entered the game with just over 14 minutes to play and UK trailing by seven and proceeded to score eight points, grab four rebounds and dish out two assists without a turnover to help UK win by 13 and advance to Sunday’s championship game where UK will have a rematch with the team that shares this year’s SEC regular-season crown, Texas A&M.
“Sometimes I think he believes in his players more than they actually believe in themselves,” Briscoe said of Calipari. “Not talking about me in particular, but the things he said to me, I took it in consideration and just decided to go out on the court and just play.”
Briscoe wasn’t the only one who showed great improvement in the second half.
Poythress, who typically plays much better after quick starts, flipped the script against Georgia after scoring just two points in eight minutes in the first half after picking up a pair of fouls.
With Kentucky trailing by six nearing the midway point of the second half, Poythress scored on three of the next four possessions with an array of post and power moves that Georgia was left helpless to try and defend, cutting UK’s deficit to a single point.
“(Coach Cal’s) like, ‘Alright, we gotta get you some easy buckets, easy shots,’ ” Poythress said. “I was like, ‘Just put me on the block and let me go to work.’ ”
“How about Alex in the second half?” Calipari said. “He gave us a goose egg in the first half. He now begins to say, okay, let me get this going. Well, he’s not done that throughout his career. So this was a big day for Alex.”
Kentucky ended up scoring 31 points in the paint, outrebounded the Bulldogs by two and scored 22 second-chance points to Georgia’s 13 despite both teams grabbing 13 offensive rebounds.
With the NCAA Tournament less than a week away, Saturday’s performance was big for a Kentucky team that continues to look like its peaking at the perfect time after scoring 1.43 points per possession, it’s second-best outing of the season behind only Friday’s.
After Georgia, a team fighting for its postseason life, shot 61.3 percent, Kentucky kept its composure and continued to fight until finally wearing down the Bulldogs in the second half and coming out with the win, a formula it may have to use again in the Big Dance.
“That was a great test,” Calipari said. “That was a war. We got down, and we didn’t stop. We kept playing. And they didn’t go away. We had to make big plays and big rebounds down the stretch to even think about beating them.”