Alex Poythress

(AP Photo/James Crisp)
Associated Press

No. 5 Kentucky pulls away thanks to improved second-half execution

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A Kodi Justice three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half capped a mediocre 20 minutes for No. 5 Kentucky. While they did hold a one-point lead at that point, the Wildcats looked nothing like one of the nation’s top teams. Whatever John Calipari and his staff said to the players in the locker room got through to the players, as the Wildcats produced a far better half of basketball on their way to the 72-58 victory in Lexington.

And moving forward, the key for Kentucky will be putting together quality performances for a full forty minutes as opposed to doing so in fits and spurts.

A 19-5 second half run put the game out of reach for the visiting Sun Devils, who grabbed nearly half of their available offensive rebound opportunities (eight offensive rebounds to nine defensive rebounds for Kentucky) in the first half. Arizona State did grab seven offensive rebounds in the second half, but thanks to Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress (four defensive rebounds each) the Wildcats did a better job of limiting the visitors to one shot.

Those defensive rebounds helped the Wildcats establish a better flow on the offensive end, with Kentucky scoring 20 of their 40 second-half points in the paint and shooting 57.7 percent from the field.

Poythress (ten points, six rebounds) left the game in the first half with a hyperextended right knee (not the one he injured last season) after playing some of his best basketball of the season, and with Skal Labissiere once again ineffective (zero points, zero rebounds) the senior’s absence was felt. Since the start of the season Calipari’s been on Poythress to be more athletic on the court, because he has the potential to change the equation offensively for the Wildcats.

Lee, who’s been effective this season, finished Saturday’s game with 14 points and seven rebounds and has been an important piece for the Wildcats in the front court. But with the strides Labissiere still needs to make being greater than many anticipated before the season began, Poythress’ aggressiveness is an important factor for Kentucky moving forward. They missed him when he wasn’t on the court, with Arizona State hitting the offensive glass, and that changed for the better when he returned.

Another positive in the second half for Kentucky was their perimeter shooting, as they made five of their ten attempts from three after shooting 1-for-11 in the first half. Arizona State used a zone at times, and unlike the first half in which Kentucky settled offensively they were more disciplined in finding quality looks. The Wildcats have capable shooters in Tyler Ulis (12 points, six assists), Jamal Murray (17 points) and Isaiah Briscoe, but they don’t have a consistent knockdown guy.

That makes the quality of shots they get that much more important, and in the second half thanks to their improved execution the Wildcats averaged 1.14 points per possession (0.87 first half).

Given the combination of new pieces and guys who were supplementary options a season ago stepping into primary roles, this is going to be a work in progress. Kentucky took some positive steps in their half-court offense in the second half Saturday, which allowed them to pull away from Arizona State. And as they continue to work on that aspect of their game, the Wildcats need to figure out how to get their prized freshman big man going.

No. 5 Kentucky rebounds with 88-67 win over Eastern Kentucky

Alex Poythress
Associated Press
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky senior Alex Poythress showed what’s possible when his mind, body and will are working together. Coach John Calipari hopes to see that imposing combination more often as the forward keeps making his way back from a devastating knee injury.

Poythress had 21 points and 13 rebounds, Jamal Murray scored 16 and No. 5 Kentucky pulled away from Eastern Kentucky 88-67 Wednesday night to bounce back from last week’s first loss at UCLA.

The Wildcats (8-1) succeeded with improved and dominant inside play against the smaller Colonels. Kentucky scored its first 32 points in the paint and 58 overall, outrebounded EKU 50-25 and made timely baskets before pulling away late.

Poythress’ third double-double this season led the way and featured a baseline drive and two-handed dunk for an 80-65 lead with 4:14 remaining. He finished one point shy of his career best and matched another on the boards.

“I’m just trying to play hard every time I’m out there,” said Poythress, who sustained a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament last December. “I’m just trying to give 100 percent out there and bring energy.”

Poythress’ effort pleased Calipari, who has waited a long time to see it.

“I want the kid to be the best player in the country. He’s capable of that,” the coach said. “He was a couple of shots from a near-perfect game.”

Marcus Lee added 11 points and eight rebounds, while Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe each added 10 for the Wildcats.

Javontae Hawkins scored 19 points for EKU (7-3), which entered as one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams (44 percent) but made 5 of 18 from behind the arc (28 percent).

For first-year Colonels coach Dan McHale, a former student manager under Kentucky coach Tubby Smith from 1998-2001, the game was a bittersweet homecoming.

His team entered with many offensive strengths including perimeter shooting, but those 3-point shots didn’t fall in a 1-for-8 first half that only improved slightly after the break. The Colonels shot 40 percent from the field overall.

EKU pushed the tempo at times and even got within 71-63 late before Kentucky outscored the Colonels 17-4 down the stretch to seal it.

“To be down eight at the under-eight (minute) timeout, I would have taken it,” McHale said. “We just couldn’t get consecutive stops back together and couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass.”

Kentucky was much better in hitting 35 of 64 overall (55 percent), a huge improvement from its 38-percent effort at UCLA. Then again, those impressive numbers were expected given the Wildcats’ height advantage that the 6-foot-11 Labissiere, 6-9 Lee and 6-8 Poythress provided and frequently exploited underneath.

Especially Poythress, whom McHale said “is a pro when he wants to be. When that motor clicks and when he starts playing at the speed he did tonight, he’s very tough to guard.”

TIP-INS

Eastern Kentucky: Jarelle Reischel, who entered the game ranked third nationally with 65 made free throws on 80 attempts (which ranked fourth), made all five attempts in the first half and finished with 12 points. … Hawkins fell to the floor with a left calf cramp but limped off the floor with eight minutes left.

Kentucky: The Wildcats made 18 assists but committed 17 turnovers. … Briscoe and EKU’s Reischel each received offsetting unsportsmanlike technical fouls in the first half. … Charles Matthews had seven points.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky visits Marshall on Saturday.

Kentucky hosts Arizona State on Saturday.

THIS SEAT IS TAKEN

McHale’s return to Rupp Arena included an homage to late longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley, whom he worked under as a student manager. The EKU coach kept the first chair next on the scorer’s table empty to honor his onetime mentor, who worked for the Wildcats for 48 years.

PHOTO: Kentucky’s Alex Poythress gets his teeth caught in the net

Alex Poythress
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Kentucky’s 73-62 win over Duke was a nice early-season statement for the Wildcats, but it also showed that forward Alex Poythress has some of his burst back in recovering from a torn ACL.

Case in point? Poythress caught his teeth on the net coming down from an alley-oop from teammate Jamal Murray.

Here’s a photo of Poythress getting a taste of the net from Jonathan Daniel of Getty Images:

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