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In the second half of its final preseason tuneup, the UK men’s basketball team showed a glimpse of how good it can be.
Now the Cats just have to hope that play carries over to Friday’s season opener against Maryland in Brooklyn, when the games start counting for real.
“They canceled the (New York City) marathon. I was hoping maybe they’d cancel this game,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “But I guess we’re going to have to go up there and play it.”
Before UK heads to the Big Apple, the Wildcats had to deal with an opponent much closer to home: Lexington’s Transylvania University.
UK turned the ball over 10 times in the first half and led by only one point with eight minutes before halftime. A late first-half run gave UK a nine-point lead at the break, and the Wildcats returned for the second half with a newfound intensity, outscoring Transylvania 47-10 en route to a 74-28 win.
“I like how we started the half,” Calipari said. “I like how active we were. I liked how we were deflecting balls, how we were flying and spacing the court. I liked that.”
“We came out with a lot more energy, started getting a lot more aggressive on defense, scrambling and rebounding,” said senior guard Julius Mays.
Calipari opened the second half with starters Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer on the bench. Mays and freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein started in their place.
“I just wanted to try something to see,” he said. “I was not very happy with how we were playing. We had 27 points (at the half). We didn’t post the ball enough.”
The lineup of Mays, Cauley-Stein, freshman forward Alex Poythress, freshman forward Nerlens Noel and freshman guard Archie Goodwin opened the half on a 12-4 run before Harrow and Wiltjer returned to the game.
“That was our big lineup, I’m sure we’ll go to it some,” Mays said. “It was different. We came out with a lot more energy. It started defensively and let defense turn into offense. I think it was mainly just the way we came out with as much energy as we had.”
Mays erupted for nine early points in the second half behind three consecutive three-point baskets. He finished the game with 14 points and five assists.
Noel did not miss any of his six field goals in the second half, finishing the game with 15 points and four rebounds.
Cauley-Stein and Harrow each scored 12 points in the game. Harrow also dished out four assists.
“I think our effort was better in the second half and our will to stop somebody one defense,” Cauley-Stein said. “In the first half we were giving up threes, even easy layups and put-backs. In the second half, we just went to the glass more.”
“We just had a lot more energy in the second half,” Harrow said. “If we were able to have that energy in the first half and keep it throughout the whole game, it would be good.”
The competition will get much tougher in the next week with games against Maryland and Duke to open the regular season.
Monday’s second half against Transylvania was a step in the right direction for UK, but Calipari knows his team has plenty of work to do.
“It’s winning or learning, it’s not winning or losing,” he said. “It’s all learning right now, because by January we’ve got to be right. The only way you can learn is play against good teams, and those two teams are well coached and they’re talented and they’re veteran teams, so they’re going to be hard games for us.”