John Clay: Practice habits help Wiltjer deliver when called upon

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 18, 2012 

There was 10:08 left in the first half when Anthony Davis picked up his second foul, sending Spiderman to the bench and Kentucky basketball to a rare oh-oh moment.

After all, the visiting Ole Miss Rebels had already shown they were not the same team that lost by 26 at home on Thursday night to Vanderbilt, an outcome so aggravating a pair of Rebels nearly got into post-game fisticuffs outside the locker room.

So in Davis' absence, who would step up and fill the Big Blue void? Terrence Jones? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? Doron Lamb? Marquis Teague?

How about Kyle Wiltjer.

"The reason we had a lead at halftime was because of Kyle Wiltjer," said UK Coach John Calipari after the Cats' 77-62 victory.

Not that Wiltjer was Davis incarnate, swatting away shots by the truck-load, skying to the heavens to snatch lob passes before slamming them down through the hoop.

Instead, the freshman from Oregon contributed the Wiltjer way, with one of the more textbook perimeter shots in all of college hoops.

True, Wiltjer had already scored a rare in-the-paint basket with 11:17 left in the first half before Davis was whistled for his second foul. But once the freshman star left the floor, the freshman reserve filled a hole in the lineup by finding a hole in the Ole Miss zone.

His three-pointer from the left wing at the 6:57 mark broke a 24-24 tie. He then found a soft spot in the visitors' 2-3 defense to hit a jumper from the circle at the 5:20 mark to make the score 29-27 Kentucky.

With 3:19 left in the half, Wiltjer then drilled another three-pointer from the left wing to snap a 31-31 deadlock and put the home team up by three points, even making a rare nod to the boisterous home crowd.

At the half, Wiltjer had 10 points, as did fellow reserve Darius Miller. That meant the UK bench had nearly half (20) of the team's 43 points.

Wiltjer's only basket in the second half came with 7:25 remaining, on another three-pointer. By that time, however, Davis was back to being Davis, Jones was on his way to his season's first double-double, the Kentucky lead was 21 points and the Cats had their 50th straight home win practically in the bag.

"I thought he came in and changed the game in the first half," said Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy of Wiltjer. "The zone bothered them a little bit. I just thought (Marquis) Teague was so fast, he wanted to go, go, go. I thought Wiltjer came in and and really was a big key for settling them down and all of a sudden other guys stepped up and made shots."

"Kyle played great today. He was outstanding," Calipari said. "In the middle of the zone, he made shots, he defended well, he took a charge. I mean he played well."

Wiltjer's 13 points was his SEC high, the most he had scored since his career-high 24 against Loyola-Maryland back on Dec. 22. He ended up making five of six shots, including three of four three-pointers.

"I really (give) credit to my hard work this week," Wiltjer said. "I've really put in a lot of time getting extra reps because I really feel that pays off and builds your confidence. Cal emphasizes that every day that you build your brand in practice, not in games."

Wiltjer's brand has been that of the least-heralded of this other-worldly freshman class. He's not as athletic as Davis, not as aggressive as Kidd-Gilchrist, not as fast with the ball as Teague. But he has a sweet stroke, a good work ethic and a desire to improve.

His defense has improved. His physicality around the basket has improved. His ball-handling has improved. He has a ways to go in those areas, but he's getting there.

"I'm just trying to improve a little bit every day in practice," he said of those areas.

But the shooting has always been there. And with Davis out of the game Saturday, putting a serious curb in the Cats' effective lob game, Wiltjer provided the needed offense, and spark, his own way.

"It just shows you what I keep saying," Calipari said. "We probably have seven starters."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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