Trey Lyles (41) celebrates after scoring two of his 18 points.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Of all the impressive wins top-ranked Kentucky has collected in marquee games this season, Saturday’s 84-67 dismantling of No. 18 Arkansas speaks a little louder than most.
The Wildcats clinched the Southeastern Conference regular-season title, and the Razorbacks rarely had a chance after the early minutes, a common theme in many of Kentucky’s wins over ranked opponents.
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Andrew Harrison and Trey Lyles each scored 18 points as unbeaten Kentucky (29-0, 16-0) dominated the long-awaited matchup of the SEC’s top two teams on both ends.
This victory was noteworthy beyond earning the program’s 46th league title. Kentucky ended a three-game losing streak against the Razorbacks (23-6, 12-4) by beating them at their own high-speed, physical game, leading by as many as 31 points with eight minutes left.
Asked why this game meant a little more, Lyles said: "Just because the last couple games we lost to them. It was a challenge for us."
"They came out and played aggressively and it was a game we needed. … We just wanted to come out and turn it around this year."
Kentucky did so with its league-leading defense, which held the conference’s top-scoring team to 38 percent shooting and 12 points below its average (79.5).
The Wildcats meanwhile shot 48 percent from the field and outrebounded the Razorbacks 38-32 to extend the best start in school history.
Tyler Ulis added 14 points and Devin Booker 10 for Kentucky, which has won its past five games by an average margin of 20.4 points. The Wildcats also completed a season sweep of five ranked opponents by an average of nearly 17 points per game — a number that jumps to 20.3 when figuring in their 39-point blowout of UCLA.
Michael Qualls’ 17 points led four Arkansas players in double figures, but the Razorbacks couldn’t keep up.
"I’ll give it to them," Qualls said. "They were taking it to the boards and taking shots. I don’t think we made a 3-point basket in the first half and that’s big because we can shoot the ball really well."
Bobby Portis added 15 points, Alandise Harris 12 and Rashad Madden 11, none of which mattered much against a Kentucky squad that once again played its best against a ranked opponent.
"I think they were looking forward to this game," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "The thing for these kids, they’re preparing to play well but know if I’m not at my very best, I’m good, I’ll play other people. But I’m not going to hurt myself. That’s what is good about this."
The Wildcats seized the tempo from the start with a quick pace that knocked the Razorbacks on their heels. Lyles started things off with a lob dunk from Karl-Anthony Towns (eight points, five rebounds), who followed with a putback basket.
Aaron Harrison (nine points, seven rebounds) soon added a 3-pointer to get a sellout crowd into the game, and Kentucky had plenty more in an energetic if chippy first half by both teams.
The teams combined for 22 fouls and 32 free throws, and Kentucky made the most of its chances by hitting 15 of 20 from the line in building a 42-26 halftime lead. The Wildcats went on to make 21 of 28 free throws overall.
Arkansas went 0 for 9 from long range and shot 30 percent overall while getting outrebounded 24-18 through 20 minutes. The Razorbacks later hit five 3-pointers that made a slight dent in their deficit.
NOT IN MY HOUSE
Of Kentucky’s many highlight-reel plays early on, the best was Willie Cauley-Stein’s wicked block of Harris’ drive, which resulted in immediate play on social media. As if pinning the shot wasn’t enough to bring a roar from the sellout crowd, the Wildcats’ 7-footer stared down on the fallen Harris for several seconds. Cauley-Stein finished with nine rebounds, seven points and four blocks.
ON THE SCENE
New York Knicks President and 11-time NBA champion coach Phil Jackson was among several league executives at Rupp Arena for the game.