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By LARRY VAUGHT
During his time at Wright State, Julius Mays seemed to always have the basketball in his hands. He didn’t worry about when or how he would get shots because he had the ball most of the time. Once he transferred to Kentucky for his final season, that changed. He became a two guard that had to depend on others to get him the ball and learn how to get open without the ball.
However, while he struggled at times to get open and then make shots in non-conference play, he’s been one of UK’s best offensive weapons in Southeastern Conference play. Going into Saturday’s game with Auburn here, he is hitting 51.2 percent (22 of 43) from 3-point range in SEC games. He’s made 19 of his last 32 3-pointers — a 59.4 percent mark.
He takes care of the ball, too. He has 66 assists and 27 turnovers. He’s shown he can hit clutch free throws (he leads the team at 83 percent), and he’s even improved his defense to the point that coach John Calipari gave him the task of slowing down Texas A&M star Elston Turner.
Mays knew his non-conference shooting slump wouldn’t last.
“It wasn’t anything with my mechanics. It was all in my head, all mental,” said Mays. “I wasn’t shooting the ball with confidence. I was second guessing myself instead of just letting it fly like I have done my whole life. I have finally coming around and am just letting it go and not worrying about it and it is going down.
“I came from a system where I had the ball in my hands 30 minutes a game. It was hard for me to go out and adjust to guys creating my shots for me and me running off screens because that wasn’t the type player I was. But I have gotten a lot more comfortable with it. Sometimes it takes longer to make those adjustments and it took me a while.”
Now that he has made those adjustments, it has made the UK offense more potent.
“I think it was very important to figure it out. We needed another guy to step up and score and hit big shots and take some pressure off the other guys,” Mays said. “I am glad I am starting to come around and have been able to hit shots to take pressure off the young guys.”
Kentucky used a big second half to win at Auburn earlier this year to start a downward spiral for coach Tony Barbee’s team. However, Auburn is coming off a 49-37 win over Alabama. Allen Payne and Josh Wallace each scored 11 points for the Tigers (9-13, 3-6 SEC), who took control with a 16-0 run and held Alabama scoreless for more than nine minutes in the second half.
Barbee said earlier last week that he was “embarrassed” by his team’s play at Missouri that pushed Auburn’s losing streak to six straight. He probably did feel any better at halftime of the Alabama game when his team had just 13 points and was 3-for-23 from the field (the starters missed 14 of 15 shots). Auburn hit 12 of 21 shots (57.1 percent) in the second half when they broke the game open with a 25-5 surge.
Auburn won even with leading scorer Frankie Sullivan missing his first 11 shots in a 1-for-13, four-point performance.
“He has been fairly consistent up until about the last two weeks or so. It’s not what Frankie os doing but what others are doing to him,” Barbee said. “He is the catalyst. Teams are keying on him and making it hard on him. He has got to adjust his game and use the threat of being a scorer to make his teammates better. He has got to find ways to make plays. He has to get back going for us or provide that leadership.”
Barbee knows Auburn faces a major challenge Saturday, especially now that Florida has lost and UK is just one game out of the SEC lead.
“Kentucky is probably as hot as anyone in the league,” Barbee said. “Kentucky always has one of the best defensive teams in the league. Obviously, with (Nerlens) Noel behind those other guys, he erases mistakes. As they guard at a high level, the offense has come around. We are trying to find a way to get out of the funk we are in. Guys are fighting and being tough in practice. We have a veteran team and I think they know how to handle adversity.”
Mays thinks the Cats have learned to handle adversity and are playing with more confidence, too.
“I think we have got better, but I still think we are a step or two from where we want to be. Just a few steps from everybody crossing that line so we can be a really good team,” Mays said. “Guys just still are not used to some things. Guys have not played that much together and we have a young group of guys, so it is just different.”
But he says not to worry about the team looking ahead to Tuesday’s showdown at Florida.
“I am a guy that doesn’t like looking ahead and looking past anybody. Whatever Florida is doing, I am looking forward to Auburn on Saturday. We all are. That is our main task and we will worry about Florida when they come around.”