About 11 minutes into Kentucky’s game against Valparaiso Wednesday night, Mychal Mulder glanced at the scoreboard. He saw more than each team’s points. He saw how UK’s back-to-basics attention to defense this week paid off.
“Only four points,” Mulder said of Valpo’s point total with barely nine minutes left in the first half. “That was all to do with defense. Turning defense into offense. Really flying up and down the court.”
Kentucky routed Valpo 87-63 in a game that bore no resemblance to the loss to UCLA five days earlier.
UCLA’s 97 points on Saturday were the most scored against Kentucky in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach. The sting remained as the Cats played Valpo.
“Yeah, definitely . . . ,” Derek Willis said said. “That’s just not what we’re about. We’re a defensive-minded team. That’s all we focus on. That’s all we talk about for the most part.”
After the 97-92 loss to UCLA, Calipari blamed himself for assuming his team could not be diverted from its defensive groove. He ordered a return to square one with defensive drills.
“I think he thought we didn’t need that anymore,” Isaac Humphries said Tuesday.
The back-to-basics approach included reverting to the initial practices this fall in which Calipari pitted potential starter against potential starter. Isaiah Briscoe and De’Aaron Fox, arguably UK’s two most indispensible players, set the tone going against each other.
“They competed like crazy,” Calipari said. “If you practice that way, you’ll play that way.”
Calipari made Valpo sound threatening. The Crusaders had the nation’s second-leading scorer in forward Alec Peters (25.4 ppg) and surrounded him with a cast of veterans that theoretically could exploit the latest edition of the callow Cats.
That didn’t come close to happening as UK improved to 8-1.
On Larry Bird’s 60th birthday, Peters gave Valpo a facsimile of the former Boston Celtic great: a power forward with the ability to post up, shoot three-pointers and mix it up physically around the basket..
But Peters struggled to do either against Kentucky’s defense.
The focal point of questioning about UK’s defense, the forward tandem of Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis, led the guarding of Peters.
“I feel we did an all-right job,” Willis said.
Calipari threw multiple defenders and looks at Peters. “We were just trapping and going at him and making him think,” the UK coach said, “so he couldn’t get in a rhythm.”
Peters labored to score 23 points, 16 of which came in the final 17:34. By then, the outcome was decided. He made nine of 20 shots.
Kentucky showed plenty of defense from the start. Valpo made only two of its first 17 shots and did not make its fifth shot until barely five minutes remained in the first half.
Twelve Valpo turnovers in the first half fueled a fast-break attack that propelled Kentucky to a 45-24 halftime lead. The Crusaders finished with a season-high 19 turnovers.
Peters missed his first six shots and struggled to score seven points in the first half. He didn’t score until posting up Monk for a score with 9:20 left and made only three of 10 shots.
Nor did Peters get to the foul line. He came into the game averaging nine free throw attempts, but took only one foul shot in the first half. He made four of four for the game.
“I told our guys after the game that this is what it looks like,” Peters said. “This is what it looks like to play a team that is perennially in the running for the national championship each year. Moving forward, we’re not going to see anything like this. . . .
“We knew coming into this environment it would be something that we’ve never seen before. We just didn’t respond well in the beginning.”
UK broke open the game with a 21-0 run inside the first 11 minutes.
While Valpo made only eight of 29 shots in the first half, Kentucky had no problem scoring. The Cats made 13 of their first 22 shots, zipped to a double-digit lead inside the firest eight minutes.
The margin grew to 20 mid-way through the half and expanded to 35-9 on Briscoe’s fast-break dunk with 6:57 left.
Valpo, which averaged 35.9 points in the first halves of its earlier games this season, reached double digits on a free throw with 6:44 left. The Crusaders scored their fifth basket with 5:16 left.
Valpo even struggled to score at the foul line. Coming to Rupp Arena with 81.5-percent accuracy on free throws, the Crusaders made only six of 12 in the first half.
Peters got off to a better start in the second half. He scored on back-to-back possessions inside the first four minutes, the latter giving him 11 points with 16:49 left. That marked the 56th time in Valpo’s last 58 games he scored 10 or more points.
But the baskets only reduced UK’s lead to 48-30.
UK tried to slow Peters by substituting Willis for Gabriel. The rout resumed.
Never mind a Valpo rally, the chance of Valpo making it mildly competitive faded when Peters started cramping and limped off the court with 13:58 left. He returned later.
Kentucky vs. Hofstra
What: Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival
Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday