UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky enjoys ‘bigs’ victory at Arkansas

Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray (23) got the basket and the foul drawing a block on Arkansas Razorbacks forward Moses Kingsley (33) as Kentucky played Arkansas on Thursday Jan. 21, 2016 in Fayetteville, AR.
Kentucky Wildcats guard Jamal Murray (23) got the basket and the foul drawing a block on Arkansas Razorbacks forward Moses Kingsley (33) as Kentucky played Arkansas on Thursday Jan. 21, 2016 in Fayetteville, AR. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

After Skal Labissiere contributed mightily to what could be called a “bigs” Kentucky victory over Arkansas, Coach John Calipari had a question for the winning locker room.

“Maybe he’s a jump shooting big man,” Calipari said. “What do you think?”

Calipari noticed a knowing look on heady point guard Tyler Ulis’ face.

“Ulis must have said this to Kenny (Payne) weeks ago,” Calipari said. “‘Dude’s trying to turn the guy into something he’s not.’

“He’s not Shaq. He’s a jump shooting big man. If he rebounds and blocks shots, I’ll let him shoot jump shots.”

In UK’s 80-66 victory at Arkansas, neither resembled its former personas. It was like Donald Trump was suddenly self-effacing and Bernie Sanders was a zealot about slashing government spending.

Kentucky’s much-maligned front court led the way, especially in the first half. Meanwhile UK’s star guards scored points, but were anything but efficient. Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Ulis combined to make 12 of 35 shots.

Ulis led UK with 24, a total built upon a career-high 14 made free throws in a career-high 15 attempts. Murray added 19 points.

Labissiere rode to the rescue. His 11 points marked his first double-digit game since Dec. 9 and his highest total since posting 17 against South Florida on Nov. 27.

In the last eight games, Labissiere had made only10 of 29 shots. He credited the move to the high point. “It helped a lot,” he said.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time Calipari has declared Labissiere was not a low-post dominator like Shaquille O’Neal. The UK coach said the same thing in the season’s first few weeks. But perhaps because he made a reluctant Karl-Anthony Towns a low-post player last season, Calipari could not resist trying again to force a square Skal into a round hole.

This time, Calipari made Labissiere facing the basket sound like a coaching surrender. It was part of the ongoing experimentation in trying to find how to get the most from the UK players.

“In my genius way, I’m trying to post him up,” Calipari said. “Maybe he’s a jump shooting big man.”

Arkansas, which came into the game as the Southeastern Conference’s most prolific scoring (81.8 ppg) and three-point shooting team (50 percent accuracy), did not make a shot from beyond the arc until the 15:22 mark of the second half. The Hogs made only one more in a two-for-12 shooting night.

UK, which improved to 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the SEC, won at Arkansas for the first time since Billy Gillispie directed the Cats to a 79-63 victory on Valentine’s Day, 2009.

Arkansas, which game into the game with a Ratings Percentage Index of 103, fell to 9-9 overall and 3-3 in the SEC. The Hogs suffered their second-most lopsided home loss in Mike Anderson’s five seasons as coach.

The idea that the game was being played in an alternate universe came quickly. The front court scored UK’s first seven baskets, and finished the first half accounting for 11 of the Cats’ 14 field goals.

Offensive rebounding sparked this reversal of form. Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Labissiere all scored on put-backs in the opening 10 minutes. UK outrebounded Arkansas 16-4 before the under-12 TV timeout. At that juncture, Kentucky had eight offensive rebounds and Arkansas one.

Labissiere also could have been nominated for the Bizarro Superman of this 180-degree departure from the norm. His high-arcing jumper from the elbow swished. Later, he hit a purposeful turnaround shot from the lane.

Kentucky led 36-24 at halftime despite the three star guards combining to make only three of 20 shots. The other UK players made 11 of 16.

Going into the second half, the question was whether the Kentucky team could stray from its past in another way. The previous week the Cats nearly squandered a 20-point second-half lead against Mississippi State and did lose at Auburn despite leading by 12 after halftime.

Potential trouble loomed. Poythress picked up his fourth foul with 17:58 left. Then Lee was called for his fourth foul at the 15:46 mark.

But Arkansas got no closer to Kentucky than 11 points.

Cal lauds Willis

New starter Derek Willis followed up his first double-double with 12 points, seven rebounds and a career-high four blocks.

“Derek Willis makes us a better team,” Calipari said. “I’ve got to put people on the bench to get him his minutes.”

Calipari said Willis led the team in rebounding in two days of practice earlier in the week.

Willis, who played a career-high 35 minutes, credited his father and girlfriend. They told him his performance at Auburn was “amazing,” he said. “But what’s going to really keep you going is the next game.”

Snow go

In order to beat a snow storm forecast for Friday, Vanderbilt rode a bus to Lexington Thursday afternoon.

Vandy spokesman Andy Boggs said he could not remember the Commodores traveling to a game site earlier than the day. He began working for Vandy in 2007.

After playing Arkansas, Kentucky planned to touch down in Lexington at midnight. That would be 40 hours prior to tipping off against Vanderbilt Saturday in Rupp Arena.

No. 23 KENTUCKY 80, ARKANSAS 66

KENTUCKY

Min

FG-A

FT-A

TR

A

PF

PT

Poythress

15

3-5

1-2

6

0

4

7

Willis

35

5-8

0-0

7

0

2

12

Ulis

38

4-10

14-15

1

5

3

24

Briscoe

29

1-7

0-0

7

3

4

2

Murray

37

7-18

4-5

7

1

2

19

Lee

10

2-3

0-0

2

0

5

4

Labissiere

20

4-10

3-4

3

0

4

11

Matthews

12

0-1

1-2

3

0

0

1

David

0

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Mulder

2

0-0

0-0

1

0

0

0

Humphries

1

0-0

0-0

0

0

1

0

Floreal

1

0-0

0-2

1

0

0

0

Totals

200

26-62

23-30

43

9

25

80

Percentages: FG .419, FT .767. Three-point goals: 5-16, .313 (Ulis 2-3, Willis 2-4, Murray 1-7, Briscoe 0-2). Team rebounds: 5. Blocked shots: 9 (Willis 4, Labissiere 3, Murray, Poythress). Turnovers: 6 (Murray 2, Willis, Mulder, Lee, Ulis). Steals: 5 (Lee, Willis, Murray, Labissiere, Ulis). Technical fouls: None.

ARKANSAS

Min

FG-A

FT-A

TR

A

PF

PT

Kingsley

32

3-6

7-10

6

0

4

13

Miles

12

2-4

1-4

0

0

0

5

Hannahs

33

7-14

5-7

3

0

3

20

Durham

24

1-5

1-2

2

5

2

3

Bell

28

5-12

5-6

4

0

4

16

Thompson

21

1-2

0-0

4

3

5

2

Watkins

9

1-3

0-0

2

1

1

2

Whitt

14

0-3

0-0

2

1

2

0

Beard

25

2-6

1-2

5

2

2

5

Kouassi

2

0-0

0-0

0

0

0

0

Totals

200

22-55

20-31

34

12

23

66

Percentages: FG .400, FT .645. Three-point goals: 2-12, .167 (Bell 1-4, Hannahs 1-5, Durham 0-1, Beard 0-2). Team rebounds: 6. Blocked shots: 5 (Kingsley 2, Thompson, Beard, Bell). Turnovers: 9 (Kingsley 4, Hannahs 2, Miles, Watkins, Bell). Steals: 3 (Bell, Beard, Kingsley). Technical fouls: Kingsley.

Kentucky

36

44

80

Arkansas

24

42

66

A—18,588. Officials—Tony Greene, Karl Hess, Olandis Poole.

Next game

Vanderbilt at Kentucky

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

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