By Jamie H. Vaught
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Second-ranked Kentucky continued its winning ways in season openers during the John Calipari era as the Wildcats breezed past a respectable Stephen F. Austin club 87-64 Friday night, Nov. 11, at Rupp Arena. UK is now a perfect 8-0 in season-opening contests under the direction of Calipari.
Against SFA, Calipari primarily used an eight-man rotation which saw eight players each getting at least 15 minutes of action. And the Cats were led by a trio of starters -- senior Derek Willis (pictured), sophomore Isaiah Briscoe and record-setting freshman De’Aaron Fox with all three seeing at least 30 minutes.
Briscoe shot well, hitting 6 of 11 field goals for a game-high 17 points. Willis, who blocked three shots, poured in 15 points on 5 of 7 shooting while Fox had a double-double with 12 points and 12 assists.
Fox also established a new standard for a season opener as he broke then-senior Dirk Minniefield’s mark of 11 against Butler on Nov. 27, 1982. (Minniefield is currently the all-time UK leader in career assists.)
In the rebounding department, the Wildcats were outrebounded by a disappointing 36-28 margin. But Kentucky forced 28 turnovers and passed for 21 assists to pull the game away.
“Defensively, I think we did okay,” said Briscoe. “There is always room for improvement. Coach (Calipari) watches the whole game and sees it from a different perspective. He said we need to get a lot better on defense and that will be one of the key things we work on tomorrow (Saturday) at practice.”
A 6-9 forward from Mt. Washington, Ky., Willis had a nice performance despite a few mistakes, especially on rebounding, and he’s a becoming a mature leader on a team loaded with talented rookies.
“It’s my senior year and I want to make the most of it,” said Willis. “I come in an hour or so before practice and stretch out and shoot around a little bit. I work out with KP (Kenny Payne), which all the big guys do. I set out and practice what I want to do for the day.
“I think what I’m going to start doing though is work on some kind of rebounding drill or getting more physical with somebody because I just feel like with how I rebounded tonight it’s something I need to improve on.”
Calipari said he inserted Willis in the starting lineup because he wasn’t that comfortable in beginning the new campaign with four freshmen on the floor.
“I’m so proud of him (Willis),” said the coach. “In Derek's case, you know, it's taken time (for him to blossom) and everybody's on a different calendar. Derek's showing great maturity.
“He gave up some offensive rebounds, that’s what hurt us, but if he's playing with that much confidence, the good outweighs the bad.”
Calipari is pleased that he has Willis and another senior, Dominique Hawkins, playing quality minutes as part of the rotation.
While the speedy Fox is spectacular to watch, the rookie said Briscoe is a big help at point guard.
“It makes it easier for me because I'm throwing it to another guy who can make plays,” said Fox, a 6-3 product from Houston. “I don't always have to be the one to be a playmaker. He's taught me how to do what Cal wants correctly.”
Fox also agreed that he could be the leading scorer in future games while Briscoe will star in the passing department with assists.
“It (roles) can be switched easily,” said Fox. “Anyone can lead in assists and anyone can definitely lead in scoring because we have so many different ways to score. That’s just how it happened today, and in any upcoming day it can be flip-flopped.”
Not to be overlooked is 6-9 rookie Wenyen Gabriel, who hit 5 of 6 baskets for 10 points along with two steals in his Wildcat debut. Seven-footer Isaac Humphries was also impressive with nine points and team-high eight rebounds in 19 minutes.
In only six minutes of playing time, senior guard Mychal Mulder managed to hit two of three-pointers and scored eight points on 3 of 4 shooting.
The Wildcats now will move on and focus on Sunday night’s 6 p.m. matchup with Canisius at Rupp Arena. The contest will be televised by ESPN2. After that, Kentucky will meet No. 12 Michigan State Tuesday night in New York City (7 p.m., ESPN).
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught