LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) —Baylor’s comfort with the zone defense on Saturday created uneasiness for No. 8 Kentucky.
It left the Wildcats with a 64-55 loss to the Bears, a two-game losing streak and the end of their 54-game run at Rupp Arena.
Not to mention a lot of soul searching.
“They came in here and executed what they were supposed to be doing,” Kentucky freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “I gave them credit for that. We shot ourselves in the foot. We didn’t make shots and gave up easy plays that could have helped us in the end.”
Kentucky’s struggles with Baylor’s combination of zone alignments were symbolized by its failure to get the ball inside to its big men and a failure to answer it from the outside.
The Wildcats (4-3) just shot 30 percent, their lowest under coach John Calipari. That was 10 percent worse than in Thursday’s 64-50 loss at Notre Dame.
“That’s what happens when you have a bunch of freshmen out there,” Calipari said.
Pierre Jackson scored 17 points and Isaiah Austin and A.J. Walton each added 11 for the Bears (5-2), who beat the Wildcats for the first time in eight tries. Baylor also avenged last year’s Elite Eight loss to Kentucky, which went on to win its eighth national title with freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leading the way.
Calipari’s latest crop of talented of talented freshmen is clearly not at that level just yet.
Though Calipari has insisted from the outset that center Cauley-Stein, forwards Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel and guard Archie Goodwin might be as good as their predecessors by the spring, they were going to encounter some bumps along the way.
Baylor provided plenty with its zone and athleticism that at time left Kentucky’s youngsters flat-footed.
“I would say it’s us not going out there and trying to beat them as bad as they want to beat us,” said Goodwin, who led Kentucky (4-3) with 17 points before fouling out with 1:44 remaining in the game.
“Every game that we are going into they are looking to try to come at our heads the hardest because of the name across our chests. As a team we don’t go back at them the same way.”
Poythress added 13 points and Noel eight for the Wildcats, whose only upside was outrebounding the Bears 48-37 including a 21-6 edge in offensive rebounds.
After trailing for the first 15 minutes Baylor took its first lead at 20-19 on Jackson’s 3-pointer and stayed close before closing the half with a 12-2 run for a 34-29 lead. The Bears kept the Wildcats at bay with a zone defense that forced Kentucky into 16 turnovers.
Baylor coach Scott Drew wanted to make sure his team stayed with the strategy all day.
“We played zone defense,” Drew said, “and I think in the past, last year when we played them we predominantly played the whole game in man defense and that didn’t work out too well. So, we tried something different.”
For Baylor, the game offered some revenge after Kentucky beat the Bears in last year’s Elite Eight en route to its eighth national title.
“It means a lot to us,” said Bears forward Cory Jefferson, who scored 10 points. “We played them last year in the Elite Eight; everybody knows that did not go so well. We used that as motivation. We watched the film on everything we did wrong and practiced all throughout the week to be prepared for what we had to do against Kentucky.”
It took a little while for Baylor to get going and from there the Bears didn’t let up. They led by as many as 10 in the second half and never let Kentucky get closer than three points.
The most telling sequence came with about five minutes remaining and Kentucky trailing 54-50. There were several Wildcats in position to grab Jackson’s missed jumper but just stood by as Rico Gathers grabbed the offensive rebound, make the layup and draw the foul.
It eventually ended Kentucky’s 55-game home winning streak including a 2009 NIT game at Memorial Coliseum, which was the nation’s longest active streak.
In assessing Kentucky’s performance, Noel said, “I think a lack of concentration, having lapses during important parts of the game, bad shooting and field goal percentage, especially myself. I guess I did not have enough touch.”
Noel added that that will likely be addressed in future workouts. “We really need to fix the little things,” he said.