UK showing new-found effort despite slow starts

Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe hugs his teammate in the huddle during the Wildcat’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Rupp Arena on February 28, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.

By Chris Angolia

Tuesday night’s home finale against Vanderbilt for UK men’s basketball showed that anything can happen at a basketball game as senior Derek Willis proposed to his longtime girlfriend.

But while player proposals are out of the ordinary, it seems as if slow starts are something UK has grown accustomed to.

Just as the Cats did on Saturday against Florida, allowing the Gators to get out to an 8-0 lead, Vandy jumped out to a 7-0 lead and had Rupp Arena yet again worrying if its team would respond. To make matters worse, the slow start carried way beyond the under-16 timeout as the Cats found themselves down 25-6 with eight minutes left in the first half.

“We weren’t desperate enough to start the game,” coach John Calipari said. “And even if we were desperate enough, part of it may have been we were going to press, but we weren’t going to be as aggressive, so that could come back to me. But I keep telling them, I’m not responsible for your effort, your energy, your fight, you are.”

However, a 19-point deficit proved to not phase this group, who has drastically changed over the past few weeks, as the Cats overcame the largest deficit of the John Calipari-era to pull out the 73-67 victory.

Overcoming such a deficit is something that cannot be done without an intense defensive effort. Effort was something that this team did not exactly show much of when it lost three of four games just over a month ago, but on Tuesday, it looked as if effort was the reason that the Cats won.

Effort is something that Dominique Hawkins has never lacked at UK over his four years, and in his final game at Rupp Arena, Hawkins was one of the big reasons that the Cats pulled off the comeback.

“Yeah, but we didn’t start the game that way (with effort),” Calipari said. I mean, if you’re going to win in March, that’s what you have to play like, 40 minutes. What you saw in the second half. That’s who you’ve got to be, or you’re not winning. – How about Dom (Hawkins) and the way he played. There was a time when he tipped it and we got the game back in hand.”

A full court press is something that the Cats are not completely accustomed to doing, but nonetheless, it was a big contributor to UK making its biggest comeback since February of 1997.

Hawkins and his constant energy helped the Cats force the Commodores into 10 crucial second half turnovers. While Hawkins bringing energy was nothing new, his classmate Willis turned in what may very well have been his best defensive half of his career over the final 20 minutes.

Over his four years at UK, it has been the three-ball that has got him noticed, but in his final game a Rupp Arena, Willis had three clutch blocks as well as pulling down eight rebounds while giving an all-out effort.

Yet again, this all goes back to effort, and while some can argue that the Cats could avoid having to go all-out by starting a little faster than they did on Tuesday, that effort will be needed come tournament time.

“It (Coming back and playing with high energy) is very big because that is what you are going to face in tournament play,” Hawkins said. “Every team is going to be at their best and give us their best shot. And I feel like we may be down in some games but we have to fight to catch back up. – But with this team I feel comfortable that we are going to win any game.”