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Keith Taylor: Veteran Derek Willis the ‘x-factor’ for UK in 88-54 rout of Missouri

It would be easy for Derek Willis to get caught up in his own hype but he’s “playing to win right now.”

“I don’t think about that stuff,” Willis said. “If it happens, it happens. It’s just how I take it. For right now, I’m just doing what I can for the University of Kentucky. That’s all that’s important to me.”

 Derek Willis scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds Wednesday night (Tammie Brown Photo)

Derek Willis scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds Wednesday night (Tammie Brown Photo)

Whether he plays five or 40 minutes a game, the Kentucky junior is more focused on team victories than his own accomplishments.

However, as proven during the past two weeks, the Wildcats can’t win without Willis.

“He’s made us a different team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 88, Missouri 54

The Kentucky junior forward considered it “cool” when Calipari credited him for being one of the main reasons the 20th-ranked Wildcats (16-4, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) have won three straight, including an 88-54 win over struggling Missouri Wednesday night.

Taking the compliment from his coach in stride, Willis said point guard Tyler Ulis deserves most of the recognition for the team’s recent turnaround.

“I would say the credit is probably to him because without him then there ain’t a team I don’t think,” Willis said.

Calipari agreed but said Willis deserves his share of the praise.

“He’s playing desperate,” Calipari said. “Basically, he’s put a couple guys on the bench. And they’re good players, but this is about performance.”

 Skal Labissiere slams home two of his 12 points Wednesday night (Tammie Brown Photo)

Skal Labissiere slams home two of his 12 points Wednesday night (Tammie Brown Photo)

Picking up where he left off during the past three games, Willis posted his second double-double of the season with a career-high 18 points and 12 rebounds against the Tigers. He made a career-high four 3-pointers, making three of those during a 20-0 run in the first half that set the tone for the easy victory.

“I thought Willis was the x-factor,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said. “He shot the ball well.”

Just as he has in recent games, Willis helped “stretch the team out,” against the Tigers, which led to more creativity on offense.

“That’s just what I try to do,” Willis said. “I play inside-out and just play hard.”

Willis admitted a mental transformation sparked his emergence into a routine threat on the court. Thanks to advice from family and friends, Willis began to realize that basketball and life share a common bond.

“I wasn’t really being competitive with basketball, and then it was like I talked with some friends and a lot of older people and they let me know the competitiveness doesn’t transition just with basketball, it’s everyday life,” he said. “There’s going to be guys competing with you for jobs, for a girl, anything.

“If you don’t step up and kind of be a man, then honestly, it’s just going to be a really difficult life for you. That’s kind of what made me change.”

From an athletic standpoint, Willis said he hasn’t changed, but said a new mental outlook has contributed to his recent surge on the court.

“I’ve always been able to do that other stuff,” he said. “You learn certain things about the game as you go, but it’s all in your mind, I think. That’s all it is. Mental.”

Once he realized he could make a difference following conversations with his dad and a “group of friends” Willis said it “went from there,” but wants to keep improving.

“I’m kind of proud of myself for a lot of the stuff I did so far, but then it’s again, you can’t be content with where you’re at,” he said. “You have to always progress, and if you’re not progressing then why are you doing it?”

The bottom line for Willis is simply winning.

“I just want to win,” he said. “That’s it.”


* Isaiah Briscoe had 15 points, six rebounds and six assists, his 10th double-figure game of the season.

* Ulis finished with 20 points, his third straight game with 20 or more points. Ulis also added a team-high eight assists.

* Skal Labissiere finished with 12 points, a season-high against an SEC opponent. It’s the second time in the past three games the freshman center has scored in double figures. The Wildcats are 7-0 when Labissiere reaches double digits.

* Willis made two free throws and is a perfect 16-for-16 at the line this year.

* Jamal Murray had 11 points and has made a 3-pointer in his each of the team’s 20 games this season, a school record.

Game tracker: Kentucky at Kansas, Saturday, 7 p.m. 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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