John Calipari seemed loose on Thursday, joking around with the media before his team’s pre-SEC Tournament practice at Belmont University.
He talked about his team’s confidence and good health and how the pieces were starting to fall into place. Turns out, the Kentucky coach had every reason to be in a good mood. His team was ready to throw the first punch.
Opening the post-season with a powerful performance, Kentucky rolled all over Alabama 85-59 in a Friday night quarterfinal rout at Bridgestone Arena.
Alex Poythress had made two three-pointers all season. He drained four on Friday night. SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis scored just three points in the first half. No problem. Ulis scored 14 points in the second. Jamal Murray had scored 20-or-more points in 10 straight games. Friday night, the SEC’s Freshman of the Year extended the streak to 11, pouring in a game high 23 points.
Murray may have his bow-and-arrow routine, but he’s not the only marksman on this team. The Cats made a season-high 13 three-pointers in 22 attempts. Besides Poythress’ unexpected quartet of triples, Murray made five, Ulis buried two, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis sank one each.
You’re not going to be beaten by many teams when you’re shooting the three-pointer like that.
“We didn’t expect (Poythress) to shoot the ball like Murray,” said Alabama coach Avery Johnson afterward.
Neither did his teammates.
“Honestly, this is a surprise to everybody,” Ulis said. “He came out and he was hitting shots, knocking them down. I feel like they were doubling him in the post. He just wanted to get away to get some open looks. He stepped out, they left him and he knocked down shots.”
Not that Poythress was the only star.
“They have an outstanding backcourt,” Johnson said. “Definitely the best in the country.”
Johnson, a former NBA player and coach, received his SEC Tournament indoctrination on Friday. The league may say the conference tournament is played at neutral site, but Nashville — or most any other site, for that matter — is far from neutral.
With the arena emptied following the afternoon session, the doors were late to open for the first game of the nightcap. There were reports of a Big Blue mob outside trying to get in to the point where it was a few minutes into the contest before this hockey arena was filled to capacity. Once the Kentucky fans were settled in their seats, and Poythress started ripping the nets from beyond the arc, they got loud. Very loud.
“It sounded like Rupp,” said Hawkins.
Louder, actually. As Calipari said, for the most part, these are the Kentucky fans who don’t have tickets to Rupp Arena, who make the pilgrimage to Music City to see their heroes in the flesh. And this team, which has experienced its fair share of ups and downs this season, rewarded them for the effort.
“Cal has done a nice job with having a balanced team,” Johnson said.
In something of a tour de force, Poythress finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. Isaiah Briscoe actually led the team in assists with six. Marcus Lee grabbed five rebounds. Skal Labissiere played just 18 minutes, but scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds.
“I loved what Dom did coming off the bench,” said Calipari.
Stat of the night (besides those three-pointers): Kentucky finished with 18 assists. Alabama finished with four.
It all goes back to what Calipari was talking about Friday. With Poythress fully back from his minor knee surgery, Willis back from his sprained ankle, with Hawkins back from his ailments and Labissiere back to playing confident basketball, he has a team ready to hit on all cylinders.
“If we shoot the ball well,” said the coach afterward, “we’ll be a difficult team to play.”