By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — The last time Kentucky played Texas A&M, Derek Willis was on a roll going into the game and came out of the game with a sprained ankle.
Willis is back playing and had 14 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in Saturday’s 93-80 win over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Now he gets a chance to play against Texas A&M again in Sunday’s SEC title game.
“Yeah I’m looking forward to playing them. Good team, I really like the (Alex) Cauruso kid. I think he’s an underrated player in the SEC, like his game. So it’ll be fun. I’m just looking forward to playing them again,” said Willis.
He said the A&M loss was a “learning experience” to get ready for the “real thing” at tournament time.
“That’s just what we took from it and it is what it is. We’ll get another shot at them and it’ll be fun,” he said.
A healthy Willis certainly gives UK a different dimension both with his 3-point shooting and rebounding. Saturday was his third game back from his injury and the best he has felt even though he admits his ankle and knees won’t be 100 percent until he has time to rest after the season ends.
“I had to play with those ankle braces(Friday) and I felt like slower. Whatever athleticism I did have, I felt like I didn’t have. So I decided to take them off and it helped me,” Willis said. “I felt more loose I guess, but defensively I just wasn’t there in the first half, and a little bit in the second half, I had some defensive lapses. It was frustrating for me and just thinking about it now is kind of making me mad.”
He felt the same way at Texas A&M when he said his defensive lapses early cost UK nine points before he got injured.
“It was so frustrating for me because I messed up so many times. I don’t know, I can’t do that when it comes to the real thing next weekend (in NCAA Tournament play,” Willis said. “Today’s game is going to help us having to come from behind like that.
“This is just how the tournament is going to be. There is going to be days where you’re down 10, let’s see what you can do, and everything counts. I just think it’ll be a learning experience for us, it was a great learning experience for me. It just all around helps us.”
Willis blocked shots on three straight Georgia possessions in the second half when Kentucky took control of the game.
“That’s where I tried to compensate for when I was messing up. I was like, ‘Well, I have to make some plays to get back and do something.’ Because offensively I think I hit a 3 at some point and just hit free throws honestly. I wasn’t really doing much, so I had to do something,” Willis said.
He was 2-for-5 from 3-point range and was open on the three shots he missed. He admitted that sometimes frustrated him and it was nice to have teammates Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, UK’s top two scorers, tell him to keep shooting.
“It used to bother me even more when I missed shots and I would get really down. I just feel like making shots is what I should be doing,” Willis said. “But now I’ve learned to do other things and just keeping the shots when they are there.”