By LARRY VAUGHT
As he watched his team getting really tested for the first time in the Bahamas, Kentucky coach John Calipari said on the SEC Network that he was anxious to see who would make a big play with the game on the line.
He knew veterans like guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison could do that after what they did in the NCAA Tournament, but he found he has another clutch performer — freshman point guard Tyler Ulis.
His defense forced a turnover in a one-on-one confrontation that led to his own layup in UK’s 77-72 victory over Chalons-Reims, a team UK beat 81-58 on Monday. This time the French professional team went toe-to-toe most of the game and was down only 75-72 with 3 minutes, 52 seconds remaining.
No one could score the rest of the way except for Ulis, who broke down his man near midcourt, got the steal and went for the score that had Calipari, who was back sitting at the top of the gym while assistant Barry Rohrssen coached the team, on his feet applauding like the other UK fans in Nassau.
“One thing you want to think about right now is Tyler changed that possession defensively and that changed it for us. He has the ability to put tremendous pressure on their ballhandlers. He has quick feet. He did a really nice job,” Rohrssen said on the UK Radio Network postgame show.
“This is just a big-time play by Ulis. He (Ulis’ man) fell down but the reason he fell down is big-time pressure by Ulis. That is the type of play that can make the difference in the game,” said SEC Network analyst Jay Bilas.
And he was right.
Kentucky broke its two-platoon system in the final minutes when the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson came back in to play with Ulis and Lee. That provided a three-guard look that UK may often use to finish close games because it gives the Cats two point guards in Andrew Harrison and Ulis and three perimeter scorers who can score outside, drive and make free throws. Kentucky can do that because the Harrisons both have the size to guard small forwards.
Aaron Harrison finished with a game-high 15 points while Ulis had 12 and Andrew Harrison 11. Freshman Devin Booker had 10 points, including a big-time shot in the lane under duress at about the five-minute mark. Kentucky had depended on inside play to win its first four games, but this time the perimeter players combined for 48 of UK’s 77 points.
“We are new together and trying to have fun, and winning is fun,” Booker said on the SEC Network after the game. “We came out with a win, so it was a good time. I just do what they give me. If you can shoot, that opens opportunities to drive.
He said he was still adjusting to the speed of the game.
“It’s a lot faster than high school. You have to run fast but the game has to be slow to you,” he said.
The French team, which had seven former Division I players from the United States, made the game physical — something Calipari liked.
“One of the things you want to think about when you play somebody a second time is that you don’t want their pride to beat your arrogance. We were on roll where played well. They came out with a bit of chip on their shoulder,” Rohrssen said.
Andrew Harrison, who had seven assists, noticed.
“That’s what we needed. We need it would be a tough battle. Those guys are great players,” he said. “We are having fun, but today we needed that challenge. It was great for us.”