By LARRY VAUGHT
When UCLA beat Kentucky 97-92 in Rupp Arena in December, UCLA freshman T.J. Leaf had 17 points and 13 rebounds.
The teams play again Friday night in Memphis and Kentucky senior forward Derek Willis had some interesting memories from that first meeting against UCLA and Leaf.
“I think back in the fall or whenever we played them, I kind of like — I don’t want to say I took him for granted, I just didn’t know all the things he could do. And he kind of surprised me in a sense,” Willis, who had 11 points and six rebounds in that game, said.
“I feel like we played sort of similar, and he’s a good player. So just got to take it how it is, and I feel like we’re peaking at the right time. We’re playing really well, and a lot of us are playing the best basketball we’ve ever played. It’ll be a fun game tomorrow, though. It’ll be fun.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said Leaf surprised more than just Willis.
“He killed us on the backboard, too. It wasn’t just what he did, but he was more physical than we had expected. He drove the ball more than we expected. That includes our staff, too, now,” Calipari said Thursday.
“Again, we knew they were good. We didn’t know how good they were. And I think a lot of teams in the country did not realize how good they were, how good their personnel is, how well they play together, how fit — if you don’t think they’re physical, you’re wrong. They’re physical. So they’re a terrific basketball team.”
Willis hopes the number of close games Kentucky has had, including Sunday’s win over Wichita State, will help the Cats Friday night.
“I think it just started back in the season. Honestly when people were kind of concerned we weren’t beating teams by 20, 30 points, and we’d come away with probably six, 10-point margins, and not typical leads we would finish games with, but still, I think it just prepared us for postseason play and being in environments,” Willis said.
“Every environment we went and played in was crazy. It all just prepared us for postseason. And taking away from last weekend, the same exact thing, felt comfortable in situations, and I think that’s just kind of how we’ve been prepared all season long,”