LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Something about blowing a 21-point lead at Tennessee appears to have struck a nerve with Kentucky, which is once again dominating opponents.
The 14th-ranked Wildcats have followed an 84-77 road loss in Knoxville on Feb. 2 by pummeling Florida by 19 points, Georgia by 34 and South Carolina by 27. Saturday’s 89-62 victory over the Gamecocks was especially impressive considering coach John Calipari watched the final 37 minutes of it from the locker room after being ejected.
He had to like what he saw; Kentucky turned a competitive game into a blowout after his exit.
“We’re just really valuing each possession and understanding that once we get the lead, we have to be able to put teams away,” freshman guard Charles Matthews said Wednesday. “That’s just what we’re trying to be capable of doing.”
Right now, the approach has the Wildcats (19-6, 9-3) tied atop the Southeastern Conference with LSU. Calipari has cited players’ embrace of defense as a major factor in winning the last three games by an average of nearly 27 points. Kentucky is holding opponents below 40 percent shooting over that span.
That has helped the Wildcats gain the edge their coach has sought all season and they hope to keep it going Thursday when they host the Volunteers (12-13, 5-7 SEC), beginning a stretch of two games in three days.
“They’re getting there,” said Calipari, whose team travels to Texas A&M on Saturday. “I think you’re seeing each guy flow into a role that suits him, and that’s what this is about.”
Calipari has been particularly surprised by how players have adapted to playing zone defense and have even pushed for it. The strategy was somewhat necessary with the Wildcats susceptible to foul trouble, and it has limited foes to just 14 of 44 (32 percent) from 3-point range during the run.
While Kentucky opponents are struggling from the 3-point line, the Wildcats are thriving.
Kentucky has made making 33 of 66 from behind the arc. Freshman Jamal Murray and sophomore Tyler Ulis have led the way, combining to go 24 of 44 (55 percent). Junior forward Derek Willis also been a significant contributor with his scoring and rebounding.
“We’re getting a lot more open shots and the guards are rebounding and pushing in transition,” freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe said. “That’s when we’re at our best.”
Things seemed to be clicking just as well during the Tennessee game as Kentucky built the big lead before the Wildcats eventually lost the lead and the game. They’ve done well to put it the collapse behind them, and now have the chance to avenge the setback.
Tennessee has lost two of three since the upset, including Saturday’s 11-point loss at last-place Missouri. First-year coach Rick Barnes still seeks consistency from his young roster but is encouraged by their progress on both ends.
And as the previous meeting against their border rival proved, no lead is too big for the Vols to overcome if they stick to the game plan. Though their plan is prevent Kentucky from jumping out early.
“We’ve definitely seen film (on Kentucky) from the last couple games and we noticed that they came out fighting and hitting hard with people,” Tennessee freshman forward Kyle Alexander said. “But I think that if we do the same thing we did last game that we could be surprised at what we do.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Freelancer Keith Taylor contributed to this report.