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In a game where the outcome was never in doubt, UK players were able to take care of business against an inferior opponent Wednesday.
Head coach John Calipari and his team say the 85-55 win versus Mississippi State, ranked last in the Southeastern Conference, is the latest example of their recent improvements.
“I thought we went forward,” Calipari said.
“There was no room to slack,” said freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein. “You’ve still got to take care of you business. They’re liable to beat you. I mean, they’re an SEC team too. They’re struggling with numbers, but they’re still capable of beating you.”
The Wildcats wasted no time in putting away any doubt that the struggling Bulldogs could hang around.
A 16-2 run turned an 8-6 lead into a 24-8 lead with 10:23 remaining in the first half. The Cats led by 23 points at halftime and by as many 35 points in the second half.
The charge was led by sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who scored a team-high 19 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists. Four other players — freshman forward Alex Poythress (16), Cauley-Stein (12), freshman guard Archie Goodwin (11) and senior guard Julius Mays (11) — finished the game with double-digit scoring totals.
“Now Ryan’s doing his job,” Calipari said. “It makes it easier on everybody on the team. Julius is doing his job leading and doing the things he’s doing. Alex is playing better. It makes everything a lot easier for everybody.”
Harrow is averaging 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his last three games. His newfound ability to rebound the ball is helping account for some of the slack lost by the injury to star freshman Nerlens Noel
Harrow said he’s been using a boxing out drill in practice to work on being in the right position to gather long rebounds off missed jump shots. Wherever the improvement came from, Calipari is pleased.
“It helps your break,” he said. “It relieves pressure from our fours and fives.”
Perhaps the only thing that did not go the Cats’ way was a minor injury to Mays, who needed four stitches to close a laceration over his left eye suffered in a collision with a teammate in the second half, but Calipari said there were no lingering effects from the blow.
While the win against Mississippi State will do nothing for UK’s NCAA Tournament resume, the Cats were able to show their recent improvement in intensity could carry over to a game in which they were heavy favorites.
Keeping that intensity up may have been easier because no one on the roster has forgotten where they were just more than a week ago after a blowout loss of their own at Tennessee.
“We had dirt thrown on us 10 days ago,” Calipari said. “The coffin was nailed shut and the dirt was thrown on us.
“Now all of the sudden we’re like, ‘Wait a minute. What just happened in 10 days?’ And they’re feeling good about themselves. They should. I’m proud of them.”
Harrow used Calipari’s analogy to describe the team’s mindset, saying players are just trying to “keep our coffin open.”
With road games looming against Arkansas, which is undefeated at home in SEC play, and Georgia before a home finale against Florida to close out the regular season, the team hopes it’s able to dig out of that grave for good.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now it’s time to flatten it and start climbing it for the next three games, and then the SEC Tournament and, you know, the NCAA Tournament too. We’ve got to start taking care of business.”