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Keith Taylor: Willis turns in stellar performance with 25 points to lead Kentucky past Tennessee


Rick Barnes knew what to expect from Kentucky’s top two players but wasn’t sure about the rest of the team’s roster.

As expected, Tyler Ulis paced the Wildcats’ offense with 11 points and nine assists, while Murray scored 28 points and tied a career-high with nine rebounds. Ulis and Murray had their share of contributions, but junior Derek Willis was the main spark, scoring 25 points to lead No. 14 Kentucky to an 80-70 win over Tennessee Thursday night at Rupp Arena.

 Derek Willis reacts after making a 3-pointer in the second half of a win over Tennessee Thursday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Derek Willis reacts after making a 3-pointer in the second half of a win over Tennessee Thursday night (Bill Thiry Photo)

Although the final point tally established a career-high, Willis said he wasn’t at his best.

“I didn’t even really play hard,” he said. “I hate to say that, but I didn’t feel like I played hard. I’m just being honest. I’m not trying to put it on my body right now because it feels like crap, but I just didn’t play hard. I feel like I could have gotten more rebounds. I feel like I could have played better defense.”

Willis did most of the damage in the second half, scoring 17 points as the Wildcats put the Volunteers away more than two weeks after blowing a 21-point lead in an 84-77 setback in Knoxville.

“Coming in we knew, you look at a guy like Tyler Ulis who is terrific, controls the game, and does so many things, you have to believe he and Jamal Murray are going to get their (points),” Barnes said. “What you hope is that you don’t let a guy like (Derek) Willis breakout like he does. They do enough that they’re going to get there so you can’t let the third or fourth guy get going.”

Along with Ulis and Murray, Willis proved to be unstoppable.

“It’s another person to worry about,” Willis said. “When they wanted to go man-to-man, it can stretch the court out more and that’s why I feel like in my position it’s just so important to open up those lanes for Isaiah and Jamal and Tyler.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 80, Tennessee 70

For Willis, it was another stellar performance in a season of transformation for instate product. Largely because of his contributions, the Wildcats find themselves in sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference standings — a two-game lead over LSU — with five games remaining in the regular season.

“What’s changed our team is Derek,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He made us a totally different team. When we went to (putting him in the starting lineup), it was obvious everybody could see he just changed our team.”

Although scoring, defense, and rebounding have been his most obvious improvements, the emergence of Willis took another turn against the Volunteers. Willis made seven 3-pointers, including five in the second half as the Wildcats pulled away from the gritty Volunteers.

“I’ve been trying to adjust my shot a bit,” Willis admitted. “I’m trying to get my feet set and be more balanced. It paid off tonight.”

Calipari said Willis also is starting to embrace physical play.

“He’s coming every day,” he said. “Doesn’t mean he makes shots every day, but he comes every day and gives you everything he has.”

Willis is giving so much, it’s starting to wear and tear on his body. Following his performance against the Vols, Willis had both knees taped and iced down to help ease the pain. He receives treatment on a daily basis through electrical stimulation to avoid future issues with his knees and ankles.

“My knees just feel horrible,” Willis said. “And was it yesterday I twisted my ankle? Maybe it was today. I don’t even know. I can’t get my body healthy right now.”

Although hobbled, Willis just wants to keep Kentucky on the winning track.

“I’m trying to get a championship and that’s it really,” he said. “I don’t care about the points and stuff. I’m just trying to win and just do that.”

Notes

* Kentucky has won at least 20 games in eight straight seasons and for the 25th time in the past 26 years. The victory also the 22nd straight year Calipari has led a team to at least 20 wins.

* Kentucky has scored at least 76 points in nine straight SEC games for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign.

* The Wildcats finished with 10 3-pointers and have made at least 10 treys in the past four games for the first time since 1993.

* Marcus Lee didn’t play in the second half because of back issues. Lee played 17 minutes and scored four points and grabbed four rebounds in the first half.

* Isaiah Briscoe had five points and 10 rebounds, the second time this season he’s collected at least 10 boards.

Game tracker: Kentucky at Texas A&M, Saturday, 6:30 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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