Seniors become ‘next man up’ after Fox goes down in victory over USC

Kentucky Wildcats forward Derek Willis #35 celebrates a three point shot during the Wildcats game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Rupp Arena on January 21, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.

Chris Angolia

Without freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, many fans and analysts have wondered how No. 5 UK would look, and on Saturday against South Carolina, Fox rolled his ankle in the first half and was forced to miss the rest of the game.

Fortunately for UK, it was still able to pull out a victory but not without the big-time play of two unlikely guys, seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis.

While freshman guard Malik Monk got back to his usual scoring ways dropping 27 points, it was Willis and Hawkins who stepped up for the Cats sans-Fox. Despite performances that did not ‘fill up the stat sheet’, without its two seniors, UK does not win the game.

Hawkins had just 5 points, but it was his ability to do the little things that was important for UK. With a 7:2 assist to turnover ratio, the senior provided a much-needed steadyhand against the nation’s top defense. While his offense was big in the absence of Fox, his hustle and defensive intensity played a big part in replacing Fox Saturday night.

“I thought Dominique was great,” coach John Calipari said following the game. “Dom plays point every day in practice against De’Aaron Fox. Every day. So Dom looked fine. Again, Dom had seven assists and two turns and one was late when no one, the other guys could get open for him.”

Even though Calipari said after the game that there is “no swelling” to Fox’s ankle, it is clearly something that UK needs to be cautious with. Hawkins will have to step up if Fox is unable to play at Tennessee on Tuesday night. .

With Hawkins doing more of the dirty work for the Cats, Willis provided a huge spark both offensively and on the glass, scoring 12 points and grabbing a team-high seven boards to continue the growth of the four spot. For the Gamecocks and coach Frank Martin, Willis playing well against USC is nothing new.

“(Willis) always kills us,” Martin said after the game. “He always gets us. We tried hard to prepare for those corner threes. — Give that kid (Willis) credit.”

Aside from his usual production from the three-point line, Willis also put South Carolina’s Sedee Keita on a poster with a monster dunk during UK’s 7-0 run that played a big part in its victory. It may be simple  to say that the biggest thing Willis did Saturday was the dunk, which is true in some regard, but the progress he is making cannot be overlooked.

It is easy to look at both Hawkins’ and Willis’ performances individually, but when the team is without Fox as they were today, it will be pivotal moving forward that UK’s two seniors be the next man up when their floor general is not 100%.