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Inside the final minute of regulation Saturday versus Missouri, the young Wildcats were tasked with maintaining their composure in trying to overcome a two-point deficit.
They turned the the roster’s wily veteran: senior guard Julius Mays.
Mays took the ball at the top of the key, drove into the lane, drawing two Missorui defenders. He then hit a wide-open freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein with a wrap-around pass. Cauley-Stein converted a layup to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Mays’ clutch effort was not finished. He scored eight points in overtime, including 6-for-6 shooting at the free throw line, to lead the Cats to their best win of the season.
“Julius was terrific,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “The shots he made and the leadership.”
It was not Mays’ pass to Cauley-Stein or his clutch free throws that Calipari spotlighted in his postgame news conference. Instead, he focused on a play that did not show up in the box score.
In the second half when Calipari prepared to admonish sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow for incorrectly defending a pick-and-roll, Mays intervened.
“Julius looks at me, ‘I got it,’” Calipari said.
Calipari has been urging his players to hold each other accountable for mistakes all season. Mays’ critique of Harrow served that purpose, but after the game he acknowledged another motivation.
“I knew what (Calipari) was about to say, and I knew he was going to get on him,” Mays said. “It was a crucial part of the game. We didn’t need to lose Ryan. We needed Ryan, so I stopped coach and I told him that I got him. And I got on Ryan. He accepted the coaching from me, and we moved on.”
At times this season, watching Calipari on the sideline has been as entertaining as watching the team on the court. His extra coaching effort to get the type of play from his team that he has desired has been hard to miss.
Mays knows that some players may need a softer touch at times, especially when the game is on the line.
“It’s always important for you to be able to take criticism from your teammates and not put your head down,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tougher from the coach because he might not say it how you want. But coming from teammates, I think it means more.”
Mays finished the overtime win versus Missouri with a season-high 24 points on 6-of-12 shooting. He made four of eight three-point attempts and eight of nine free throws.
The graduate student transfer from Wright State was expected to serve as a role player for the Cats this season, but he has taken on a featured role in Southeastern Conference play.
In his last 11 games, all starts, Mays has averaged 11.9 points and 2.9 assists. He has also helped to make up some of the rebounding ability lost with the injury to star freshman Nerlens Noel with six boards in each of his last two games.
Even before tallying three assists and one turnover Saturday, Mays ranked in the top 25 nationally in assists-to-turnover ratio.
While Mays’ on-the-court contributions have been vital for a team with a short bench that needs all the help it can get, his off-the-court skills have been just as important to his teammates.
“There’s not another person like Julius,” said freshman guard Archie Goodwin. “He’s a great leader, and he’s a great big brother to me. He’s like my best friend. He just always is there for encouragement. Sometimes things aren’t going our way, and he’s always the person who pulls me aside and just tries to get my head back right.”
Mays thinks letting younger teammates like Goodwin and freshman forward Alex Poythress know early on that he would not just tell them what they wanted to hear helped build their relationship.
“I always keep it real with them. I’m not going to sugarcoat anything,” he said. “I don’t lie. I don’t tell them what they want to hear because I’ve been around five years and I know what it takes. Those guys are really talented, so I don’t want to lie to them or hurt them. I want everything to help them.”
Goodwin said he thought the coaches might not even have realized how important Mays could be on the the floor, but a breakout performance against Texas A&M in which Mays scored 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting helped establish his new reputation.
“He’s not just a shooter,” Goodwin said. “Once they did that, his confidence just went through the roof. He’s been playing excellent ever since.”
Calipari has also praised Mays for his defense this season. He has repeatedly noted that unlike other players on the team when Mays isn’t scoring he can still be counted on for other contributions to the team and doesn’t have to be relegated to the bench.
“He’s defending. He’s passionate. He’s showing leadership,” Calipari said. “And if he makes shots, whew.”
The Cats will likely to continue to rely on Mays’ leadership down the stretch as they look to cement a spot in the NCAA Tournament field.
On Saturday, he repeatedly recited the team’s new mantra that “our next game is our most important game.” Asked how he would help his younger teammates buy into that philosophy, Mays was frank.
“There’s no need to look ahead,” he said. “Our next opponent is who we need to look ahead to. The NCAA Tournament is not on Wednesday. We play Mississippi State on Wednesday.”