Willis, Ulis lead Cats to crushing 88-54 victory

Anthony Crawford

Overlooking SEC bottom-feeder Missouri could have been a likely outcome with all eyes looking ahead to No. 4 Kansas this weekend, but UK did just the opposite.

The Cats handled their business as they should in an 88-54 rout.  

Missouri won the tip and scored on its first possession. That would prove to be the Tigers’ first and only lead of the game. From there UK proceeded to pull away completely with a 20-0 run.

The Cats were able to run away with the lead mostly thanks to some hot shooting from junior Derek Willis and sophomore Tyler Ulis.

The forward out of Mt. Washington, Kentucky took full advantage of being in the starting lineup for the third straight game in a row as he hit his first three shots of the game with all of them being from deep.

Following Willis’ lead, Ulis also started the game 2-for-2 from deep, and he was also able to score at every other level, whether it was driving in or pulling up for the midrange-jumper.

While those two fueled UK’s offense, it was freshman Skal Labissiere off the bench who spearheaded the defense. The Haitian-born forward provided an instant impact with five blocks, his highest since his collegiate debut, and a steal.

“It makes our team different,” Calipari said. “When he blocks shots, you can’t go in there and he goes and blocks one.”

When he wasn’t denying the Tigers on defense, Labissiere was rolling on offense. The freshman is steadily building his confidence, and it showed as he went 4-for-4 from the field in the first half showing no hesitation, taking long jumpers and  capping his first half performance with a two-handed dunk.

Labissiere finished the night with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting. The freshman’s confidence keeps rising with each game, and UK is definitely going to need him if it wants to reach tonight’s level of play again.

The Cats were in firm control of the game going into the second half, but Ulis kept his foot on the gas and UK’s offense followed.

Ulis himself finished with 20 points for the seventh time in UK’s last nine contests, while also adding eight assists. The 5’8” guard has been averaging 35.8 minutes per game in his efforts to carry the team in games, but he was able to get some rest against the Tigers, only playing 29 minutes.

While Ulis rested, the reins fell into freshman Isaiah Briscoe’s hands. The guard out of New Jersey turned in a great all-around performance with 15 points, six rebounds, and six assists.

“Isaiah (Briscoe) is the best defensive guard and rebounding guard in the country,” Calipari said.

Outside shooting has been a weakness throughout the season for freshman Isaiah Briscoe, but he was able to drain multiple long jumpers. The 34.5 percent free-throw shooter even brought the crowd to a roar when he hit a pair at the line, and he finished 5-for-6 from the charity stripe. 

The win marked the Cats’ third straight for the first time since November, and it all goes back to when Calipari put Willis in the starting lineup. He added a career-high 18 points and 12 rebounds tonight while going 4-for-5 from deep.

Willis’ ability to stretch the floor has opened up the offense, but he is also averaging double-digit rebounds since being named a starter.

“I’m going to be honest with you, a big part of it is putting Derek Willis in the role that he’s in,” Calipari said. “It’s just changed our team.”

Other Notes:

  • Freshman Jamal Murray struggled shooting finishing only 4-14, but did help in other ways adding nine rebounds, two steals, and two assists with no turnovers.
  • Wednesday was the first time Labissiere has scored twelve or more points since November 27, 2015. UK is 7-0 when Labissiere scores double-figures.
  • UK’s scoring output of 88 is tied for highest this season, the other occurring on December 9, 2015 against Eastern Kentucky.