Lee, Poythress Highlight 93-57 Win in Bahamas
Aug. 12, 2014
NASSAU, Bahamas – At some point during this Bahamas trip, the Kentucky Wildcats have to come back down to earth, right?
That was the expectation Tuesday as the Cats headed into their third game in three days in the sweltering Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas. Against a collection of Puerto Rico national team reserves thirsty for a little redemption after getting embarrassed by 25 points on Sunday, some letdown was anticipated from UK.
That script looked like it might come to fruition early in Tuesday’s game when Kentucky stumbled to a lethargic start, but the deep and athletic Cats – who are doing nothing to temper the mushrooming preseason hype – quickly tore it up.
They just kept skyrocketing to the rim.
It started when Alex Poythress came alive. Then Derek Willis and Marcus Lee started dunking everything. And before anyone could catch their breath, Karl-Anthony Towns was dominating 30-year-old professionals again.
By the time Aaron Harrison drained two 3-pointers from the left wing – one that had a familiar 2014 NCAA Tournament look to it – the Kentucky highlight show was well into production, as was the third consecutive blowout.
“We’re having a blast out there,” Lee said. “If you see every player while they’re out there, sitting on the bench, you’ll see them smiling and laughing the whole time. We’re just loving our time out here.”
How could they not? They’ve destroyed two teams of professionals over the course of three games in three days by an average margin of 28 points. The latest was Tuesday’s 93-57 romp over Puerto Rico, an outcome that was never in doubt after the Cats went on a 16-2 first-half run to take firm control of the game.
“We knew we had a talented bunch and we knew that we had a lot of returning players from last year,” said assistant coach John Robic, who filled in as head coach as John Calipari watched and evaluated from the stands for a second straight day. “I think the freshmen have fit in very, very well, especially for the first couple of games … in a Kentucky uniform. I think our size shows. That’s a really big team and that’s without Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey (Lyles). So I think we have different weapons. And the returning guys have gotten better. And that’s big.”
Now granted the two teams UK has played in its first three days in the Bahamas haven’t been together all that long this summer and were a bit overwhelmed by a UK team that is in better shape and has had more time to jell in recent weeks. But to beat up on two teams made up of professionals – teams Coach Cal thought UK could lose to – on national TV has been a pretty booming statement that has likely shaken the rest of college basketball.
The real test will come Friday, after two off days, when the Cats play the Dominican Republic national team, which features a talent-loaded roster made up of Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez.
“The nice thing is I think we’re getting a little bit better every game,” Robic said. “Our plan, or Cal’s plan of everybody playing equal minutes has stayed true to form, so everybody has played 60 minutes, and it’s only off by about 20 seconds here or there. So that’s been really good. They’ve only played a game and a half in three days, so now we have a couple of days off before we do the same thing all over again.”
Until then, the Cats will get two days off to enjoy their stay at the Atlantis and reflect on an afternoon of slams that would have made the dunk-happy 2012 national championship Wildcats — one of whom (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) was in the stands Tuesday – proud.
En route to shooting 62 percent from the field, UK players flushed home 15 of their 38 field goals on Tuesday, several of the jaw-dropping variety. Among the best dunks: a double-clutch slam by Poythress, a one-handed windmill by the 6-11 Towns and any of Lee’s gravity-defying alley-oops.
All told, Lee had six dunks, and Poythress, Willis and Towns jammed three apiece.
“It was just one of those things,” said Willis, who threw down an alley-oop dunk on pass from Tyler Ulis during the game-defining 16-2 run in the first half and then another one from Dominique Hawkins moments later during a 13-0 run. “Coach Slice (Barry Rohrssen), he’s been talking to us about going to the basket, hitting the boards, because they leave us out there, so that’s just a thing. When you go to the boards, we’re long and big enough to just dunk the ball.”
Robic said the dunks tend to be contagious, as was the case Tuesday. They may only count as two points, but the energy a player creates when he rattles the rim spreads to this teammates.
“You see their reaction,” Robic said. “It’s an exciting play. It’s a game-changing play when you get a run of them consecutively by different players, yeah. The neatest thing for us as coaches is to see the players’ reaction on the bench when big plays like that are made.”
If there was any hope of a Puerto Rico charge in the second half, Lee quickly crushed it when he picked off a pass and dribbled the length of the floor for his easiest flush of the night. Seconds later Ulis found him hanging above the rim again, paving the way for another dominant UK second half.
“It’s just confidence,” with Lee, Robic said, “and he’s been working at it. He’s strong. He’s probably put on 10 to 15 pounds, 10 to 12 pounds. I think it was just a direct carryover of the NCAA Tournament.”
Lee, who celebrated in the postgame press conference over the fact he’s finally reached 220 pounds, finished Tuesday’s rout with 14 points and seven rebounds after a quiet game Monday.
“I feel bigger,” Lee said. “I feel more confident throwing my weight around and guarding bigger player.”
Poythress continued to throw his weight around in Tuesday’s romp, making 7-of-9 shots from the floor for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The junior forward, who has drawn rave reviews from three different members of the coaching staff after each game, is averaging 13.7 points and 8.0 rebounds during the Big Blue Bahamas tour. Robic, the latest coach to praise Poythress, likened his improved motor to a “rebuilt engine.”
“His confidence has to be through the roof,” Robic said of Poythress, who has grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in three games. “He just does things athletically that you cannot teach and you don’t see very often. And he’s trying to do them more, really without us saying nothing about them. He’s playing above the rim by himself a lot of times, and we’ve been telling him that for three years. It’s great to see him smile.”
Poythress is far from the only Wildcat grinning from ear to ear on this trip.
The toughest test yet – a date with the Dominicans on Friday that could be that coming-back-to-earth moment that erases those smiles – is still yet to come, but if the purpose of this trip was to learn about this team and see if this amount of depth could work, the Big Blue Bahamas tour has to be considered a raging success so far.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” Willis admitted. “I didn’t know if it was going to be a thing where there’s just too many good players and it just falls apart, but we’re all really good guys and no one’s really selfish. I don’t get that vibe from anyone.”
Said Robic: “It’s a great group of kids that really like each other and were cheering each other on, and that’s part of this trip.”