Cats defense bounces back in win over Valpo


Guard Shane Hammik drives the ball down the court during the game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 87-63. Photo by Lydia Emeric | Staff 

Anthony Crawford

It was fair to be disappointed with No. 6 UK men’s basketball following its loss to UCLA over the weekend, but it’s also fair to be impressed with how the team responded the next game out, cruising past Valparaiso in a 87-63 victory. 

The loose defensive effort was what lost the game for UK against the Bruins, and the team’s improvement on that side of the court was what made all the difference against the Crusaders in Rupp Arena Wednesday.

The Cats used a huge 21-0 run in the first half to take control of the game and it was largely fueled by their defense. UK forced 12 first half turnovers from Valpo that allowed for the team to get out and run as they piled it on during the run. The Cats came up with 11 points off turnovers and 12 fast break in the first half, which were important as they were faced with the challenge of solving the Crusader’s zone defense in half-court sets.

Rushed shots and poor decisions on passes dispelled most of UK’s comeback efforts against UCLA, and the team showed improvement once again against Valparaiso.

On offense UK showed a lot more patience and discipline as they worked the ball to the middle of the zone and along the baseline to get higher quality shots. 

The 17 turnovers UK committed is still concerning, but some can at least be attributed to UK’s fast-pace style of play. UK’s guards, especially Isaiah Briscoe love to try to thread bounce passes on the break, and usually hit their targets. The problem comes when them or the bigs try to do it in the halfcourt and in close quarters after getting into the paint.

Overall the team shot 46 percent from the field, which is lower than what you’d expect. But the Cats missed a lot of shots right at the rim, which was still better than the guards settling for all the mid-range jumpers they attempted against UCLA.

In the second half, UK padded its lead after the nation’s leading scorer in Valpo’s Alec Peters left the game momentarily with an injury. From there the Cats coasted to the finish.

Other Notes (Senior Edition):

Derek Willis finally finding his range from three-point land.

Entering the game against Valparaiso, Derek Willis was shooting 32 percent from three (6-for-19) and had gotten to a point where he was passing up open shots. Against the Crusaders, Willis was able to turn it around, joining four other UK players to reach double-digit scoring in the game with 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the floor.

Willis started the game by stepping in and draining a couple mid-range jumpers, from the short corner to beat the zone. Out of the half, Willis had gotten some of his confidence back and had no problem letting it fly from deep to drain two three-pointers in the half and going 2-for-5 in the game.

The shooting slump from Willis was not a major problem for UK but him passing up shots was. After turning down shots, UK’s offense often had to settle for bad shots with the offense stalled or try to force a pass that usually resulted in turnovers. So hopefully after seeing a few go through tonight, Willis can put his shooting woes behind him.

Mychal Mulder impressing off the bench.

After not logging a minute in UK’s loss to UCLA, Mulder came off the bench for the Cats and impressed with his overall effort. He was very active on the boards pulling down seven to go along with nine points in 12 minutes of play. On offense he had his normal athletic finish off an alley-oop and was able to knock down a three as well. But his overall activeness running the baseline behind Valparaiso’s zone showed in the first half especially as he was able to sneak in for some offensive rebounds and easy shots inside.

Dominique Hawkins doing Dominique Hawkins things.

After the win, Calipari credited Hawkins for “changing the complexion” of the game upon being inserted into the game. His defense was as hounding as ever and played a big part in UK’s 21-0 run as the team turned to it’s press. He also continued showed confidence in his shot, as both his makes came from behind the three-point line.

If Hawkins can continue stroking it from deep like he did tonight — he finished the game going 2-for-3 — he becomes that much more of a weapon off the bench for UK, as the team could already count on his defense.

It’s also worth noting that Hawkins really started coming around last season around this time, turning in what was probably his best performance at UK against UofL in late-December. Last season an injury halted his progress some, but if he can avoid that this season his senior season will likely continue to be his best one yet for the Cats.