UK Guards Prove Worth in First-Round Rout of Stony Brook
DES MOINES, Iowa – The Kentucky Wildcats are a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they’re still one of the favorites to advance to the Final Four. The reason for that is because of their elite backcourt, which is believed by many to be the best in the country.
In UK’s first-round game against Stony Brook on Thursday evening at Wells Fargo Arena, the triumvirate of Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray showed exactly why.
“I enjoyed every moment of it,” Murray said of the game. “I love playing with this team. We just want to keep playing. We don’t want to lose right now.”
After a sluggish first half in which Kentucky shot just 32.4 percent but still led by 14 at the break thanks to some of its stingiest defense of the year, the Wildcats (27-8) hit nearly 76 percent of their shots in the second half to cruise to an 85-57 first-round victory over the Stony Brook Seawolves (26-7). The win sets up a second-round showdown with rival Indiana, which will tip at 5:15 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Ulis, the sophomore All-American, and the two freshmen guards combined for 42 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists. The UK guards were three of five Wildcats to finish in double figures scoring. Murray and Briscoe were UK’s top two scorers, respectively, while Briscoe led the team in rebounding and Murray finished second. Ulis led the team in assists.
“I saw the film and they're very good but they played really well tonight. Unfortunately we didn't,” Stony Brook head coach Steven Pikiell said. “I thought we could hang around a little bit. … Very difficult game and the way they played, that's a very, very good basketball team.”
Ulis was his normal elite self, scoring 10 points and dishing out seven assists, which is of note because it gave the 5-foot-9 floor general 243 for the season, breaking John Wall’s single-season school record.
The assist numbers are impressive, obviously, and when his 65 total turnovers are factored in for an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.7, his statistics are downright gaudy.
“He broke John Wall’s record today for assists which is an incredible thing when you think of John Wall and John Wall played a few more games now,” Coach Cal said. “He’s had a player of the year, national player of the year season, he really has. He’s led a young team.”
Briscoe picked up right where he left off at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. After averaging 8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists in three games at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., the “bulldog” Briscoe logged his second double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He also passed out two assists and went 3 for 3 at the foul line.
“I like to win, so whatever my team needs me to do to win, I will go out and do it,” Briscoe said. “If it’s rebounding, if it it’s scoring, playing defense, just locking down the other team’s best guy. I will do whatever my team needs me to do to win.”
Late in the second half, with the game well in hand, Coach Cal wanted Briscoe to run the point. While that didn’t go as well as he wanted, after the game he could only praise Briscoe for his will to win and effort to fill any crack UK may have.
“He’s a great kid,” Coach Cal said. “He’s right, he wants to win. That’s the one thing, you know? I like him to rebound free throws both offensively and defensively more than I do anyone else on my team. He goes and gets balls and does what he’s supposed to do.”
After a dismal first half in which he shot just 1 for 9 from the field and 0 for 4 from deep, Murray caught fire in the second half to score 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting and finish with 19 points total, seven rebounds and two blocks.
“His confidence is really high,” Ulis said. “He understands what he needs to do for this team. He doesn’t get down when he misses shots. I tried telling him, just keep shooting. He knows he’s going to keep shooting. He comes out and scores in bunches. Once he gets hot it’s hard to stop him.”
He now has 112 3-pointers on the season, which is just five shy of Jodie Meeks’ single-season record, and 10 shy of Stephen Curry’s NCAA freshman record.
“He came out in the second half I thought he played really well,” Coach Cal said. “He's a great kid, I absolutely love coaching this kid. He's going to be special and I'll tell you why. He has the mental make-up that he's never high, never low. He has the ability to score in bunches, à la Steph Curry, where you just let it go and that ball goes in.”
The Wildcats’ defense was the main reason for its demolition of the America East champions Thursday, but its guard play showed just how difficult of an out the Cats will be in the Big Dance.
“They have tremendous guard play, high-scoring backcourt in the country as I’ve said a bunch of times, and their bigs are athletic,” Stony Brook guard Carson Puriefoy said. “They have a great system, a great coach. They’re young, but they really know how to play the game and they really play well together, they play well as a team so I think they will go far in this tournament.”