Willis’ continued great play helps Cats overcome Razorbacks


Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) gets past Auburn guard TJ Lang (23) during the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Auburn Tigers at the Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala., on Friday, Jan. 15. (Dakota Sumpter | The Auburn Plainsman)

By Anthony Crawford

With all the talent Head coach John Calipari has had at UK, it’s hard to believe he has been winless when traveling to Bud Walton Arena in the team’s matchups against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

With how inconsistent this year’s team has played, it’s hard to believe they would be the team to finally pull out a victory on their road trip to Fayetteville. However, they would prove to have what it takes to pull off the feat thanks to another great game from Derek Willis.

Looking solely at the first half, it seemed that UK would once again leave Bud Walton Arena with a loss. UK’s guards, who have basically been the team’s one bright spot and only source of consistent production, started the game by going first 0-16 before freshman Jamal Murray finally made a shot.

That statistic alone would lead many to believe UK would be facing a big first half deficit, but the team actually led going into the locker room thanks to Kentucky-native, Willis.

The junior forward’s play these past two games has been a revelation for a team with a struggling frontcourt. After his first double-double in his UK career against Auburn, Willis plalyed in the starting lineup in place of Marcus Lee. The lineup change paid off as he would contribute another solid performance with a 12 point, seven rebound and four block effort.

After normal starters Lee and Alex Poythress once again struggled staying on the court with foul trouble, Calipari was forced to play Skal Labissiere more than usual. The freshman has been playing with more effort and confidence in practice, and it showed as he was able to contribute 11 points and three blocks for his best scoring output since Nov. 27 when he scored 17 against USF.

In the second half, UK started to look more like UK as the guards started to hit their stride. 

The team’s most consistent player this season, Tyler Ulis, was able to shake off his 1-for-6 from the field first half, mostly by getting to the free throw line. The sophomore point guard went 14-for-15 from the line and led the team with 24 points total to go along with his five steals. 

Ulis’ backcourt mate, Murray, has almost developed a habit of having bad shooting first halves followed by scoring outbursts in the second halves. He followed that pattern again today by starting the game going 2-for-10 from the field, but then exploded in the second half scoring 19 points including nine-straight to give the Cats an 18-point lead, their largest of the game. 

The Cats would be able to hold onto this double-digit lead, unlike against Auburn, and would walk out of Bud Walton Arena with a win for the first time under Calipari.