UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky’s blue grit beats Arizona State

Bobby Hurley after loss at UK

Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley talks to media after loss at No. 5 Kentucky.
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Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley talks to media after loss at No. 5 Kentucky.

Nobody could like Kentucky’s 72-58 victory over Arizona State on Saturday more than a coach. That seemed especially true for John Calipari, who had been preaching the virtues of grit and fight since September.

Coaches seem to exalt in victories that come not with good shooting and highlight material, but feature a determination to prevail despite the absence of plays that most appeal to fans.

Kentucky (9-1) missed 10 of its first 11 three-point shots, had no post-up game to speak of and got outrebounded 22-14 in the first half.

“It was horrible,” Derek Willis said of UK’s first-half performance. “We were just going through the motions, I think.”

Yet, UK did not trail in the final 36:38 and ultimately demoralized an Arizona State team that only a week earlier whipped Southeastern Conference contender Texas A&M.

“I don’t want to say give up,” Arizona State guard Kodi Justice said of the second half. “But they just came in with a punch, and we weren’t swinging back.”

That sounded like the kind of Blue grit that Calipari has repeatedly requested.

It was horrible. We were just going through the motions, I think.

Derek Willis on UK’s first-half performance

Yet, Calipari was far from satisfied.

“I walked in at halftime, and I would like to have said, ‘OK, we shoot 30 percent in the first half and we’re up one, that’s a good thing,’” he said. “But it wasn’t because we got out-roughed and we got pushed around again.”

No. 5 Kentucky summoned more competitive spirit and found its offensive rhythm in the second half. Five-for-10 shooting from three-point range made a big difference.

“You made three threes and all of a sudden, you look up, you’re up 13 (or) 14,” said Calipari in a tone that suggested the threes enabled Kentucky to win comfortably despite still low-grade grit.

Isaiah Briscoe, arguably the grittiest UK player, led the second-half surge. He scored nine straight points in a stretch that saw Kentucky take control.

“He’s a bulldog,” Derek Willis said of Briscoe. “Just attacks people.”

Arizona State, which was playing its highest-ranked opponent since beating No. 2 Kansas in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26, 1997, fell to 6-3.

That Kentucky led 32-31 at halftime seemed borderline miraculous. The Cats made only nine of 29 shots. To add injury to that insult, Alex Poythress limped off the court with what UK said was a hyper-extended right knee.

“When they told me knee, I was literally physically ill to my stomach for him,” said Calipari in reference to Poythress tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee a year ago Friday.

Lee was not concerned.

“When he came out, he was, like, ‘I just need a couple minutes,’” Lee said. “He was running up and down when he called for a sub.”

Me and Skal are tiny. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We’re small. So having another ‘big’ that’s bulkier and bigger and able to throw his body weight is tremendous.

Marcus Lee, on Alex Poythress’ impact

Calipari and Lee agreed that Poythress’ presence makes a big difference. Without him, as in the second half at UCLA last week, UK must use untested players. “They’re just not ready to play,” Calipari said.

Added Lee: “Me and Skal are tiny. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We’re small. So having another ‘big’ that’s bulkier and bigger and able to throw his body weight is tremendous.”

Before leaving the game mid-way through the first half, Poythress gave the game the kind of play that causes hearts to race and opponents to tremble.

Poythress retrieved Arizona State’s errant inbounds pass near mid-court and raced to a rousing dunk. It was the kind of play Calipari said he wanted to see. When asked Friday about Poythress’ recent double-doubles against mid-major opponents, Calipari said, “Time to do it against juniors and seniors who are as physical.”

The player Poythress dunked on, Maurice O’Field, was neither. The sophomore is listed at 6-foot-5 and played only six minutes. But the play brought many fans out of their seats.

Poythress started the second half, which prompted Calipari to ask a question in the post-game news conference.

“At halftime, did you all think, if they don’t get Alex back, they have no chance of winning this game?” the UK coach asked reporters.

With the lead at 35-33, Briscoe scored the next nine UK points. That breathed life in something Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley said on Thursday.

He looks like a winner, and he makes a lot of winning plays.

Arizona State Coach Bobby Hurley on Isaiah Briscoe

“He looks like a winner,” Hurley said of Briscoe, “and he makes a lot of winning plays.”

Briscoe hit a three-pointer, which came after Kentucky missed 11 of its first 12 attempts, and three times drove for baskets.

Kentucky took its first double-digit lead with 11:20 left. After a chaotic 30 seconds that saw the teams miss four shots and commit a turnover, Jamal Murray’s put-back put the Cats ahead 54-43.

By making 11 of its first 15 shots and out-rebounding Arizona State 12-5 to start the second half, Kentucky had a lead to protect down the stretch.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

No. 5 KENTUCKY 72,

ARIZONA ST. 58

ARIZONA ST.

Min

FG-A

FT-A

R

A

PF

PT

Atwood

30

1-4

2-3

5

0

3

4

Goodman

23

2-6

1-4

5

0

4

5

Jacobsen

27

2-4

0-2

7

0

3

4

Holder

33

6-16

2-2

4

3

4

15

Blakes

21

3-8

0-0

5

0

4

6

O’Field

6

0-1

0-0

1

0

1

0

Oleka

18

1-6

3-4

2

0

2

5

Witherill

1

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Spight

20

3-8

0-0

0

0

2

7

Justice

21

5-9

0-0

3

3

1

12

Totals

200

23-62

8-15

36

6

24

58

Percentages: FG .371, FT .533. Three-point goals: 4-20, .200 (Justice 2-4, Holder 1-3, Spight 1-5, Atwood 0-2, Blakes 0-2, Oleka 0-4). Team rebounds: 4. Blocked shots: 0. Turnovers: 17 (Justice 5, Holder 3, Oleka 3, Jacobsen 2, Spight, O’Field, Blakes, Atwood). Steals: 5 (Holder 2, Spight, Oleka, Goodman). Technical fouls: None.

KENTUCKY

Min

FG-A

FT-A

R

A

PF

PT

Labissiere

13

0-2

0-0

0

0

5

0

Poythress

19

3-3

4-5

6

0

4

10

Ulis

40

3-11

4-5

5

6

0

12

Briscoe

32

4-9

0-2

4

2

3

9

Murray

29

4-13

7-8

3

5

2

17

Lee

29

6-8

2-5

7

0

2

14

Matthews

8

0-1

0-0

1

1

0

0

David

1

0-1

0-0

0

0

0

0

Mulder

7

0-1

0-0

2

1

0

0

Humphries

5

1-1

1-1

1

0

3

3

Floreal

1

0-0

0-0

1

0

0

0

Hawkins

2

0-1

0-0

0

0

0

0

Willis

14

3-4

0-0

3

0

1

7

Totals

200

24-55

18-26

36

15

20

72

Percentages: FG .436, FT .692. Three-point goals: 6-21, .286 (Murray 2-6, Ulis 2-7, Willis 1-2, Briscoe 1-3, David 0-1, Mulder 0-1, Hawkins 0-1). Team rebounds: 3. Blocked shots: 8 (Lee 5, Labissiere, Willis, Poythress). Turnovers: 14 (Briscoe 4, Ulis 2, Murray 2, Hawkins, Willis, David, Labissiere, Matthews, Lee). Steals: 6 (Briscoe 2, Lee, Matthews, Poythress, Willis). Technical fouls: None.

Arizona St.

31

27

58

Kentucky

32

40

72

A—23,665. Officials—Tony Greene, Doug Shows, Joe Lindsay.

Next game

Kentucky vs. Ohio State

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

TV: CBS

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