By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — It was a blowout win against an obviously overmatched opponent, but this 90-38 victory over Eastern Michigan Wednesday could be just what Kentucky needed going into Southeastern Conference play next week.
The Wildcats were coming off a three-point loss at Louisville where they rallied from a 17-point deficit in the second half and had a chance to win. But could they sustain that effort?
As far as Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy was concerned, they did.
“We ran into a really good team and there was not much we could do,” said Murphy.
That’s because Kentucky coach John Calipari opened with a big lineup of freshmen Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress across the front line that Murphy said intimidated his team not only with its rebounding potential, but also with the defensive pressure created by having the 7-1 Cauley-Stein on the front of the press.
He said Kentucky, despite its 9-4 record and not being ranked, can still be an “Elite Eight, Final Four” team this season.
“They have great talent and play together,” Murphy said. “It just takes time to get better. But they are a very good team. They are as good as Syracuse or Michigan.”
Calipari may not have seemed like he was enjoying the win with the way he was yelling and pushing players even as the lead soared, he was happier after the game than he had been in several weeks.
“Again, this team beat Purdue now. And Michigan and Syracuse, they were within eight to 10 points for a long time in those games and then those games broke away from them,” Calipari said.
Kentucky held the visitors to 14 first-half points — and Calipari said five came on miscues by Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays.
“I thought we defended the whole game. That’s what I wanted to see,” the UK coach said. “All I was talking about every time was discipline. Quit taking chances, stay down, we’re not leaving our feet. We do not want to take chances. Let’s just grind this and get better, and I thought we did.”
They did. Even the players not normally known for their defense sensed that.
“We’ve made major improvements on defense,” Mays said. “That’s what we have been focusing on in practice. We’re seeing our efforts in practice carry over to the games. I think we’ve made major strides and it’s showing on the court.”
Even the atrocious second-half starts that has plagued UK this year went away as Kentucky went on a 15-0 run to start the second half.
“I didn’t even notice,” Harrow said. “We just played a real good game. We did not take many plays off.”
That might be Calipari saying “amen” because that’s the message he has been preaching for weeks. Play hard. Play intense. Play tough.
He’s been on freshman Alex Poythress more than anyone the last two weeks after Harrow started playing well enough to avoid that role. Poythress responded with a big second half and finished the game with 16 points, five rebounds and one assist in 23 minutes. Not brilliant numbers, but better than what he had been doing.
“He still has some glitches, but the team gave him a hand after the game,” Calipari said.
However, there should have been plenty of applause to go around after UK’s most lopsided win of the season.
— Mays was 2-for-19 from 3-point range in the previous four games, but went 3-for-7 against Eastern Michigan. He finished with 13 points, four assists, three rebounds and one steal. “When he makes shots, we are a different team,” Harrow said.
— Harrow had a season-high four turnovers — Calipari said he reverted to the “cool” guy at times — but also was 4-for-5 from 3-point range and had 15 points, eight assists and four steals. Calipari liked the defense. “It wasn’t even the steals,” Calipari said. “He played, he competed, he battled and he got punched in the face today and on a play and it didn’t affect him. So I am more than pleased.”
— Willie Cauley-Stein got his second straight start and responded with his second double-double — 11 points and 11 rebounds. He also had two blocks and two steals while playing the front of UK’s press. “I like Willie up there,” the UK coach said. “It’s tough when you’ve got a seven-footer running at you now. He’s just got to get a little lower so he can keep the player in the trap a little better. But I like him up there.”
— Kyle Wiltjer came off his solid game at Louisville with 17 points on 7-for-15 shooting and five rebounds.
— Nerlens Noel took just four shots, but had 13 rebounds, eight points, three blocks, two steals and one assist.
“I’m worried about us getting better,” Calipari said. “I’m not worried about any other team in the country. I could care less. I don’t watch other games. I’m focused on what I have to do to get individual players better.”
And in this game, he got a lot of chances to tinker with what ways to do just that.