Three years ago, one year ago — heck, maybe even at the beginning of this season — Derek Willis wouldn’t have taken the shot he took Friday night.
On one of the biggest stages he’ll see as a college player — a Sweet 16 matchup against a UCLA team that defeated UK in Rupp in December — Willis started the game 1 for 9 from the floor and 1 for 6 from three-point range. He committed his first foul — trying to defend TJ Leaf, a Cat killer in that first game — nine seconds into the game. He got his second foul with more than 11 minutes to go before halftime. Leaf went at him every chance he got, scoring 13 points in the first half.
In the past, Willis might have checked out at that point, with no confidence to continue.
That Derek Willis doesn’t exist any more.
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This Willis didn’t back down from Leaf in the second half.
This Willis never stopped shooting.
“Coach Cal has instilled it in me,” he said after UK’s 86-75 victory. “All those days, hours I’ve spent in the gym shooting. All the work I’ve done with Kenny Payne and all the assistants. It just comes down to this point. I always feel comfortable shooting. Tonight, they were rimming out. It didn’t go in. It happens.”
His shot finally fell at an opportune time for Kentucky.
The Wildcats had led the entire second half, but it seemed as if every time they would hit a big shot to inch out a little more, the Bruins would hit back with a haymaker of their own.
UK led 63-58 with 7:34 left in the game when Willis squared up for another three-pointer, his seventh long-range attempt of the night. Only one had gone in to that point.
Would he have taken that shot, under those circumstances, earlier in his career?
“I don’t think so,” said fellow senior Dominique Hawkins, who has watched Willis grow up these past four years. “I don’t think so at all.”
This three fell through the basket, giving the Cats an eight-point lead.
This time, UCLA didn’t answer right away.
The Cats’ lead reached nine points, then 10 — their first double-digit advantage of the night — then 11 and then 13 before the Bruins finally scored again.
By that point, there were only 5 minutes left, and Kentucky’s rematch with North Carolina in the Elite Eight was nearing a foregone conclusion.
“Seeing him grow as a basketball player has been great,” said senior Mychal Mulder, who has played alongside Willis the past two seasons. “He’s a confident guy, and he knows we’re confident in him. He’s a great shooter, and we expect him to shoot the ball if he’s open, and he knows that.
“Him taking that shot doesn’t surprise me, and him making it definitely doesn’t surprise me. We want him shooting the basketball.”
Willis has been a 41.3 percent three-point shooter over the past two seasons — making a total of 102 outside shots — after barely playing his first two years in Lexington and making a total of six threes as a freshman and sophomore.
He also has improved as a defender, and he helped hold Leaf to just four points — and just three shot attempts — in the second half.
On one play, Willis cut off the UCLA freshman and blocked his shot.
“I think (I was) just being more aware,” Willis said. “The second half, I felt like we did a lot better job on him.”
Leaf, who got just about anything he wanted in the first half, said the openings weren’t there in the second.
“I was just taking what the defense gave me, and I didn’t see as many opportunities,” he said.
After the game, Willis was asked whether he’s starting to feel that this UK team has “that feeling” — the feeling of a team that can go to the Final Four, where Willis has been twice before, and possibly beyond.
The UK senior said he “definitely” sees these Wildcats as capable of that kind of run, and he has thought that since they started playing pickup ball together over the summer.
Willis thought back on those days, reminiscing about Bam Adebayo’s physical play, De’Aaron Fox’s “stupid fast” speed and Malik Monk’s offensive talent. “He wouldn’t miss it,” Willis said.
Over the past few months, others have stepped up, too. Willis has been one of them.
“As the season goes along, you have to start putting different things into place,” he said. “I think, now, we’ve kind of got to that.”