Prior to departing Lexington for Saturday’s game, Kentucky coach John Calipari joked that it would be “Jersey Day, Cup Day and Bat Day” at Auburn, his homage to the way every opponent treats Kentucky as the biggest game on their schedule.
What the UK coach could not anticipate, however, was that Saturday on The Plains would also be “Kyle Witjer Day” in the first half and “Ryan Harrow Day” in the second as many of the Cats’ role players stepped up big time to power a 75-53 victory.
“What I’m trying to get them to buy into is how each individual player must play for us to have success,” Calipari said. “Archie had great efficiency today. He didn’t take the bad shots today. Alex played harder. He rebounded. He’s not out there killing you now. He played well today. They all did what they were supposed to do.”
Kentucky entered the game, and sold out Auburn Arena, without the services of 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who had minor knee surgery. Then Kentucky’s other tower, 6-11 Nerlens Noel, exited the game quickly with two fouls. That left only Wiltjer to man the middle and the sophomore came through with flying colors.
Wiltjer came off the bench to lead Kentucky in scoring in the first half with nine points. He added three nifty assists as UK managed a 30-25 lead despite numerous holes in the rotation.
Wiltjer would add eight points after intermission to finish with a team-best 17 points and five assists, but the second half proved a time with many other Kentucky players would take center stage as four others scored in double figures in the Cats’ biggest conference win to date.
Ryan Harrow continued his upward trend with 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds, and was clearly the spark that ignited the second-half fire during which UK outscored Auburn 45-28.
Archie Goodwin had 12 points and was also huge in filling the rebounding need with seven boards. But it was the rookie’s defensive job on SEC leading scorer Frankie Sullivan that stood out. Sullivan had 12 points but was 5-for-16, including 0-6 on three-pointers.
Alex Poythress, the most likely candidate to work the boards with Cauley-Stein’s absence, had seven rebounds.
“What I’m trying to get them to do is compete,” Calipari said. “Wins and losses come and go. You’re defined by your effort, your fight, your competitive spirit. It’s about getting my effort right, my battle right, my sense of urgency right. That’s what will define you as a player.
“They don’t know how many wins Jamal Mashburn had, but what they do know is, ‘Man, that guy balled.’ That’s what defines you, not wins and losses.”
Calipari came into the game expecting what he called a “dogfight,” as seems to also be the case when the name KENTUCKY is on the marquee.
“I told my team, ‘We’re used to this. We’re built for this,’” Calipari said. “We lose on road, what do they do? They charge the court. Don’t give them that pleasure.”
Kentucky certainly did not, blowing open the game by shooting 67 percent in the second half. Time will tell, but Calipari believes we may have witnessed a turning point for this young team.
“I even said prior to the game, ‘I don’t want to coach as much this game,’” Calipari said. “I want the players to make the calls. We’ll let them know what we want run, but I want them making the calls. I want them talking in huddles more. I want to do less.
“It becomes grueling as a coach when you’re coaching effort, and coaching every bounce of ball. I’m not going to do it,” Calipari added. “For one, it doesn’t work in the long haul. At some point, this has got to be their team and they have to run with it. I think we’re getting closer.”
And the timing could not have been better as Kentucky moves to 3-1 in SEC play.
“It was what we needed at this time,” Calipari said. “We needed to see the fruits of our labor. We needed to see some hope that we’re going to be fine.”