John Clay

John Clay: UK basketball’s big shots were the difference against Louisville

Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis finished the with 21 points in Kentucky’s win against Louisville on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis finished the with 21 points in Kentucky’s win against Louisville on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in Rupp Arena in Lexington.

Now that we know Rick Pitino was gentleman enough to wish Kentucky fans a “Happy New Year” during his postgame walk off Saturday, we can move on to the task of breaking down three key points from Kentucky’s two-point win over Louisville:

1. In a big game, you have to hit big shots.

Never mind the pregame injury (Isaiah Briscoe) and the postgame drama (Pitino). Nor the rebounding and the blocked shots and the home-state hero. The real difference Saturday was Kentucky’s marksmanship from the three-point line.

Entering the game shooting just 29.7 percent from three, the Cats surprisingly did boffo business from beyond the arc. Tyler Ulis was shooting 26.1 percent from the three on the year. He made four of seven. Dominique Hawkins was 1-for-9 for the season. He made three of four. As a team, the Cats hit 11 of 23 three-point shots for 47.8 percent.

Louisville outscored Kentucky 38-24 in the paint.

We’re talking monster threes, too. When Louisville cut UK’s lead to 65-64, Ulis jumped up and drained a cold-blooded three from the right wing to push the Cats advantage back to four points. When U of L roared back to within 70-68, Hawkins swished a three from the right wing with 2:45 left. That was probably the biggest shot of the game.

Here’s the question: Can the Cats keep it up? After all, with Skal Labissiere’s continuing struggles, UK lacks a consistent low-post presence. Louisville outscored Kentucky 38-24 in the paint. So was Saturday’s suddenly clutch shooting an aberration or a sign of good things to come?

2. The good and bad of Jamal Murray.

Kentucky’s freshman guard was the Brooklyn bomber the Saturday before, scoring 27 points in the second half and 33 overall to keep the Cats in what ultimately turned out to be a 74-67 loss to Ohio State.

Against Louisville on Saturday, Murray’s madcap play produced more turnovers than field goals. The Canadian hit just three of 14 shots and finished the day with seven turnovers, compared to two assists. Too often he drove into the thicket of Louisville’s matchup zone defense without a clear exit path.

Like his teammates, Murray did make some big plays, however. When Louisville started to gain traction, pulling to within 59-53 with 9:03 left, Murray answered with back-to-back three-pointers. And it was Murray who fed Marcus Lee with a lob pass for a jam and a 70-66 Kentucky lead with 4:10 remaining.

3. Louisville is going to get better, too.

Pitino’s postgame pouting took away from just how well his team played Saturday. In fact, you could make the argument that the Cardinals have just as much upside as do the Cats — if not more.

Damion Lee, the graduate transfer from Drexel, showed he could more than hold his own against top-flight competition. Lee was the game’s high-scorer with 27 points. Trey Lewis, the Cleveland Sate transfer, hit six of 10 shots and scored 15 points despite battling foul trouble.

Freshman Donovan Mitchell was particularly impressive, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds and dishing three assists in 21 minutes. If you’re into the plus-minus stat, Louisville was a plus-23 for Mitchell’s time on the court.

What the Cards needed Saturday was more from sophomore guard Quentin Snider, who missed all five of his shot attempts and managed just one assist in 28 minutes. As a team, the Cards were credited with just eight assists compared to 15 turnovers. And, as mentioned earlier, Louisville did a poor job of defending the three-pointer.

Then again, when Louisville defended the three, Kentucky hit the big shots anyway. When you get right down to it that was “the” difference Saturday and “the” question going forward.

Can Kentucky hit the big shots?