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Bounce-back success: Wildcats recover from Auburn loss with 80-66 win at Arkansas


By Keith Taylor
KyForward senior sports writer

Kentucky has been successful in bounce-back games under John Calipari and Thursday night was no exception.

The 23-ranked Wildcats (14-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) bounced back from a five-point loss to Auburn in their previous outing with an 80-66 win at Arkansas.

 Skal Labissiere scored 11 points in UK's win at Arkansas Thursday night (UK Athletics Photo)

Skal Labissiere scored 11 points in UK’s win at Arkansas Thursday night (UK Athletics Photo)

It was Calipari’s first victory in Fayetteville as coach of the Wildcats. Kentucky had lost its previous three games at Arkansas, two of which were decided in overtime.

“It was a good win,” Calipari said. “Anytime you can win on the road and do it is a big game. This is a hard place. You don’t come here expecting to win, let me tell you that. You just don’t.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 80, Arkansas 66

Kentucky, now 31-6 in bounce-back games under Calipari, got a solid performance from guard Tyler Ulis, who scored a career-high 24 points.

Ulis did most of his scoring in the second half with 17 points to lead four players in double figures. Ulis made 14 of 15 free throws and dished out five of the Wildcats’ nine assists.

“Tyler Ulis was ridiculous today,” Calipari said. “He was really, really, really good.”

Ulis anchored an offense that finished with a season-low six turnovers against an Arkansas squad known for its full-court pressure defense. The Wildcats also limited the Razorbacks (9-9, 3-3) to just two 3-pointers and blocked a season-high nine shots.

“We may be a grind-it-out team,” Calipari said. “That may be what we are, and that’s how we kind of played today if you watched. We raced if we had it, and if we didn’t have it we tried to grind it out.”

Jamal Murray had 14 points in the second half and followed Ulis with 19 points.

Derek Willis earned the second start of his career and finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and a career-high four blocks. Willis, who scored seven points in the first half, made five of eight shots and played a career-high 35 minutes against the Razorbacks.

“He earned it (the start),” Calipari said. “I didn’t give it to him. He earned it how he played at Auburn. Then he earned it in two days of practice. He was the leading rebounder in two days of practice.”

Just as he did in last week’s loss at Auburn, Willis drew inspiration from his father.

“I just want to make him happy and I want to make people in the state of Kentucky happy and all the fans,” he said. “That’s what I play for or else I probably wouldn’t play this game, honestly, anymore.”

Along with the emergence of Willis, Kentucky center Skal Labissiere is showing signs of progressing after failing to score double figures in the previous eight games.

For the first time since an 88-77 win over Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 9, Labissiere reached double figures with 11 points and added three blocked shots.

Calipari said reverting to Labissiere’s routine habits in the post contributed to his improved play during the past two games and took the blame for his recent offensive struggles.

“Maybe he’s a jump-shooting big man,” he said. “So let him shoot jump shots. Well, that’s not on him. Now, he’s got to get in better shape, he can’t stay out there long. You do have to fight and play tougher, but he had confidence because he made a couple shots. So that’s not on him, that’s on me.”

Labissiere likes the change and felt comfortable in the post and said the renewed emphasis on his jump shot “helped a lot.”

“I just kind of took what the defense gave me,” he said. “My teammates and Coach Cal put me in a great situation to have great looks to score, so I took advantage of it.”

Notes

* Ulis has scored at least 20 points in six games this season. His 14 made and 15 attempted free throws were a career high. He now has 103 assists this season.

* Murray has scored double figures in 16 straight games and his seven rebounds tied a career high. He has made a 3-pointer in every game, the first in program history.

* Alex Poythress scored six of Kentucky’s first eight points and finished with seven points and six rebounds.

* Marcus Lee finished with four points and fouled out in the second half.

Game tracker: Vanderbilt at Kentucky, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com


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