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Keith Taylor: On a mission, Willis gives young Wildcats soothing presence in season-opener

Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t want to start four freshmen Friday night and turned to Derek Willis to provide the leadership necessary in the team’s season-opener.

Willis did just that and much more. The senior forward scored 10 of Kentucky’s first 14 points that helped set the tone in the Wildcats’ 87-64 win over Stephen F. Austin. Willis, who led all scorers with 10 points in the first half, finished with 15 points and five rebounds in 31 minutes. Willis added an assist, three blocks and three steals and missed just two field goals on seven attempts.

Derek Willis goes up for a shot in UK's win over Stephen F. Austin Friday night Tammie Brown Photo)

Derek Willis goes up for a shot in UK’s win over Stephen F. Austin Friday night Tammie Brown Photo)

“That stuff works itself out,” Willis said of his first start of the season. “I think what we need to get done is on the defensive end. We executed most of our plays for the most part, but communication and defensive mishaps — we just need to work on and keep moving forward.”

Calipari started Willis in place of Wenyen Gabriel and gambled on having one less player in the post alongside Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and it paid off for the Wildcats, especially early in the game.

“He proved me right,” Calipari said of Willis. “He gave up some offensive rebounds (which is) what hurt us, but if he’s playing with that much confidence, the good outweighs the bad.”

BOXSCORE LINK: Kentucky 87, Stephen F. Austin 64

Kentucky freshman guard De’Aaron Fox, who had a double-double with 12 points and 12 points in his collegiate debut against the Lumberjacks, said having Willis, Isaiah Briscoe and other veterans on the floor early and often gave the Wildcats a soothing presence in the opener.

“They just make sure we don’t get rattled,” Fox said. “As a point guard, I’m just trying to develop that trait where I won’t let my team get rattled. Derek came out showed what a senior is supposed to do. He put up points and got comfortable, which helped us get comfortable.”

Read More at Keith's Blog

Read More at Keith’s Blog: Out of the Blue

Like his coach, Willis was disappointed in his lack of rebounding and vowed to improve on the glass.

“I think there were about three or four possessions, probably even more, where I didn’t come up with defensive rebounds — I let them get by me,” Willis said. “I wasn’t too happy about that, but it’s the first game of the year – season opener. We’ll just try to work out what we can and learn from our mistakes ”

Willis said his offensive performance canceled out his defensive showing.

“(If I ) come up with the rebound and that’s an extra possession for the team and an extra two or three more points potentially,” he said. “To me, it’s almost like I scored like five points instead of whatever. I just need to be a more efficient rebounder.”

Willis began his transformation from a bench watcher to a contributor last season and has steadily improved during the off-season. Early in his career, Willis was content just being on the team and shied away from his coach. As a senior, Willis is giving Calipari advice in practice and has progressed into a steady veteran.

Calipari said Willis is “showing great maturity.”

“He’s the first one at practice, and he’s the last one to leave,” Calipari said. “That went from, ‘I blow the whistle, we are done with practice, and he would run to the door. And I would say, Derek, can I talk to you guys first before you leave?’ And the last one — now, he’s on a mission. And it’s just, look, you build your own self-esteem, your own confidence, it’s not what I say and what I do on the sideline, it is about you.”

Willis added he’s playing with a better sense of urgency and wants to end his collegiate career with a bang.

“It’s my senior year and I want to make the most of it,” he said. “I come in an hour or so before practice and stretch out and shoot around a little bit. I work out with KP (Kenny Payne), which all the big guys do. I set out and practice what I want to do for the day. I think what I’m going to start doing though is work on some kind of rebounding drill or getting more physical with somebody because I just feel like with how I rebounded tonight it’s something I need to improve on.”

Although his rebounding wasn’t on par, his scoring contributions mattered the most in the opener.

Gametracker: Canisius at Kentucky, 6 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: ESPN2, 98.1 FM, WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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