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Keith Taylor: Calipari looking for more toughness and fight following victory over Albany in season opener


Kentucky has never lost a season opener under John Calipari. The trend continued Friday night.

Although not a blowout, the second-ranked Wildcats, 7-0 under Calipari in season openers, began the new campaign with a 78-65 victory over Albany at Rupp Arena.

After two exhibition blowouts and a double-digit win over the Great Danes, Calipari knows his team isn’t in March mode and is looking for more mental and physical toughness from the Wildcats.

 Kentucky coach John Calipari is seeking more grit and toughness from his team after a 78-65 win over Albany to open the season (Bill Thiry Photo) </small)

Kentucky coach John Calipari is seeking more grit, fight and toughness from his team after a 78-65 win over Albany to open the season (Bill Thiry Photo)

“We just don’t have the fight or the grit to really beat a good team, we don’t,” the Kentucky coach said.

It showed in the opener, as the Wildcats didn’t pull away from Albany until late in the second half and never led by more than 21 points. Calipari was disappointed his team couldn’t deliver a proverbial knockout punch when the opportunity existed.

“We got them down (21) instead of going to 25,” he said. “We don’t have that kind of will. You’ve got to have grit, toughness and fight when you get somebody (down). You just put them away. We’re not there yet.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 78, Albany 65

 Jamal Murray slams home a dunk Friday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Jamal Murray slams home a dunk Friday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

An otherwise good shooting team, the Great Danes shot just 7 percent from behind the arc, connecting on one 3-pointer on 14 attempts.

“If they make any shots, like any, they beat us,” Calipari said. “They didn’t make any shots and that’s a team that’s a good shooting team.”

Calipari lauded the 14 points scored by Derek Willis in the first half, an effort that kept the Wildcats in control early, but wasn’t as pleased with the play of the junior forward in the second half.

“If Derek doesn’t play in the first half, it’s probably a one bucket game at halftime,” he said. “Derek made a lot of mistakes in the second half. He didn’t rebound in the second half (and) he didn’t defend the way he was supposed to, but he was still active enough to come up with a couple of plays that broke the game open.”

Individually and as a team, Willis said the Wildcats “don’t have a choice” but to develop the kind of toughness Calipari is looking for from his squad.

“What’s going to happen, is we’re going to have a game where someone is going to come in and punch you in the mouth and it’s going to test you as a man,” Willis said. “Are we going to back down or step up, hit low and do something.”

In his debut, Jamal Murray scored 19 points and dished out eight assists, but had five turnovers, a red flag Calipari didn’t ignore, knowing an anticipated showdown with defending national champion Duke is on the horizon.

“Every game we play is a fist fight,” the Kentucky coach said. “The other team is trying to beat us. It’s the biggest game on their schedule.”

After hearing from his coach on the miscues, Murray vows to make better decisions during each possession moving forward.

“That’s something I realized,” he said. “I will make the adjustment.”

Veteran Marcus Lee finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three assists, but those numbers were overshadowed by his performance at the free-throw line. Lee was 2-for-7 from the charity stripe, drawing criticism from Calipari.

Lee didn’t want to discuss his free throw woes but knows what his coach expects from the Wildcats in the future.

“We need more fight,” he said. “We need to battle. We need to just keep fighting for position (in the post), fighting for the extra ball and fighting for that extra possession. That’s something we’re trying to figure out as a team.”

Notes

* Kentucky was without freshman Isaiah Briscoe, who suffered a bruised knee in practice this week. Calipari didn’t know if Briscoe would return tonight.

* In his first career start, Tyler Ulis scored 12 points, had two assists, but committed five turnovers. Overall, the Wildcats had 20 miscues. “We had five turnovers from Tyler and five from Jamal,” Calipari said. “That’s not going to get it done.”

Next game: NJIT at Kentucky, 8 p.m., today. TV/Radio: SEC Network Plus, 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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