It had the feel of what could have been a rough night: road trip, hostile environment, opponent in need of a season-turning, signature win. And then the fouls began to pile up on Kentucky’s big men.
Disaster in the making? Not this time.
These young Wildcat no doubt were celebrating in the locker room, laughing on the bus, walking tall in the airport and snoozing on the plane trip home with big smiles on their faces after a commanding, 80-66 victory over Arkansas.
John Calipari shook up his starting lineup and it paid off, inserting the blossoming Derek Willis for the struggling Marcus Lee. One blossomed a little more, the other kept struggling.
As Lee absorbed fouls quicker than you could say, “Whoo-ee, pig – sooie!” Willis grabbed rebounds, blocked shots and knocked down jumpers, finishing with 12 points, seven boards and four blocks. And even though you could point to Calipari’s public comments about his defensive shortcomings (“What’s the word below ‘bad’?”) the forward from Mt. Washington once again credited motivational words from his father.
"My dad, he's the one that's kind of pushed me toward this. Him and my girlfriend,” Willis told reporters after the game.
Whoever gets the credit – Calipari, Willis or Derek’s girlfriend – they should take a bow because Willis came through on a night that saw Kentucky lose, not only Lee but Alex Poythress for long stretches when it looked as though the senior forward might barbecue the Hogs.
Poythress scored the first three times he touched the ball and was the only Kentucky player effective in defense of the rim. But fouls piled up quickly on him also, including one inside the first 20 seconds of the second half, and he spent long stretches on the bench, next to his teammates.
Labissiere, after what he said were three tough but productive days of practice, pumped in 11 points, the most he’s scored since he went for 17 against South Florida on Nov. 27. Two came on a savage dunk off a nifty pick-and-roll pass through two defenders by Tyler Ulis. He also picked up where Poythress left off defensively, blocking three and affecting a few others.
Labissiere reached back into his offensive repertoire for face-the-basket jumpers, which he had shown earlier in the season but had disappeared as Calipari tried to shoe-horn him into the low post. In his post-game comments in Fayetteville, the UK coach shouldered the blame, saying, “A lot of this is on me. If he rebounds and blocks shots, he can shoot jumpers."
According to a tweet from CoachCal.com, “Skal says (the) big difference for him was coming out with more intensity, fighting more and playing for his teammates.” In other words, attitude adjustment – more confidence. "I can't take it away from him,” Calipari said.
And that’s what Calipari credited, on his post game radio show – an old-school kind of confidence. “We went back to the 1990s and just said, ‘Let's refuse to lose,’ ” he said.
Of course, all of his players were born in the ‘90s. But they got the message.
And they did, indeed, take a big step by not surrendering a lead they worked so hard to build. Arkansas scored the game’s first point. The Wildcats answered with two free throws by Tyler Ulis and never trailed again, building a first-half lead that reached 14 on a triple by Ulis. It was 12 at recess.
Despite the fact that Poythress picked up two fouls in the first 2:02 of the second half, Kentucky built a lead that reached 18 with 7:35 to play, thanks to a microwave moment by Jamal Murray, who had reverted to his earlier ways with a sluggish start.
Just about the time you’d imagine the Razorbacks would be thinking comeback, Murray suddenly found his rhythm, scoring nine straight points, helping the Wildcats expand a lead that reached 63-45 with 9:45 remaining.
And when he wasn’t filling it up, Ulis was. The smallest Wildcat who often plays the biggest, the UK point guard scored 12 of Kentucky’s final 17 points, eight from the free throw line, finishing with a game-high 24 points, to go along with five assists.
It was a Kentucky victory that happened for a mélange of reasons, a medley, if you will – Willis’ dad/girlfriend and their encouragement; Labissiere’s comfort level facing the basket; Murray and Ulis burning it up when they had to. It added up to a clutch road win at Arkansas, where Calipari had never tasted victory before as the UK coach.
It had to be awfully sweet.