John Clay

John Clay: UK basketball turns to random acts of excellence for stellar second half

Kentucky forward Marcus Lee got free for a first-half dunk against Arizona State.
Kentucky forward Marcus Lee got free for a first-half dunk against Arizona State. Lexington Herald-Leader

Second half, Kentucky picked up the pace.

Marcus Lee started in place of Skal Labissiere. Alex Poythress tossed off reports of his questionable-to-return status concerning the knee he hyperextended in the first half and reported for duty. Shots started falling. Defense turned aggressive. Presto, change-o, here we go.

Outside of possibly the Champions Classic win over Duke, it was the best 20 minutes of basketball in Kentucky’s young season. Up just a point at the break over Bobby Hurley’s scrappy Arizona State Sun Devils, the Cats turned up the heat in the second half, connecting on 57.7 of their shots, including five of 10 three-pointers — talk about a course correction — and blowing past the visitors 72-58.

They did so sans Skal. Or at least a productive Skal. The freshman center fouled out in the second half after 13 minutes in which he failed to score a point or grab a rebound. He stands 6-foot-11, by the way. He took all of two shots. His struggles continue.

“He’ll be fine,” UK coach John Calipari re-iterated after the game.

For this game at least, Kentucky was just fine, thank you. Why? Because after a halftime inside a very loud locker room — “A lot of yelling at the bigs,’ reported Marcus Lee — the nation’s fifth-ranked team came out the second half and played more of an uptempo style on both ends of the floor.

“Random,” Calipari called it, which is the way he has wanted this team to play from the start of the season. Saturday, first half, the coach jumped his guards for dribbling too much. He told them to give up the ball quickly. He wanted movement. He wanted flow. He got it.

The Cats entered the game hitting an abysmal 27.5 percent from three. First half Saturday, they added to that by missing 10 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc. Second half, however, they found the range. That allowed UK to get into its press, to get into Arizona State.

“It gets us more in a rhythm,” said guard Jamal Murray, who led the way with 17 points, along with five assists. “When we hit shots, it opens up the floor.”

That’s this team at its best. Look at Lee. The 6-foot-9 junior isn’t a post-up player. He’s not going to wow you with Bill Walton-like moves around the basket. He can run the floor like few others in college basketball, however. When he plays with energy, Lee is a Pogo stick, scoring around the rim, snatching rebounds, blocking shots. Saturday. He finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.

“We just didn’t stop,” Lee said. “Most teams, after they’ve had a pretty OK first half, they kind of back off. Now we’re starting to figure out that we need to go up a level the next half.”

Next project: Getting Labissiere to raise his level. Rivals ranked Labissiere as the No. 1 prospect in the class of 2015, ahead of even LSU’s Ben Simmons, when he arrived on campus. In his last four games, Labissiere has scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Against Arizona State’s more experienced post men, especially 6-10 senior Eric Jacobsen, Labissiere was again lost. He played eight minutes the first half, five the second. He didn’t take a shot in the second half, but did commit three fouls.

“You understand, he came from Haiti,” Calipari said afterward. “He played basketball for a year and a half, and then he played church league for two years. He’s never been through any of this. This is all new to him.”

“We’re not worried about Skal because we have Marcus,” Murray said. “Skal’s going to have his day.”

Saturday, the Cats didn’t need Labissiere, not in the second half. The mentality changed. The movement started. It was grab-and-go from defense to offense. Nearly all got involved. Randomness rocked.

Kentucky men’s basketball next five games

  • Dec. 19 Ohio State in Brooklyn (3:30/CBS)
  • Dec. 26 Louisville (12:00/CBS)
  • Jan. 2 Ole Miss (7:00/CBS)
  • Jan. 5 @LSU (9:00/ESPN)
  • Jan. 9 @Alabama (6:00/SEC)