Wildcats back to basics in win over Tennessee
Kentucky coach John Calipari jotted down a simple message on the whiteboard in locker room before the 18th-ranked Wildcats faced rival Tennessee on Tuesday night.
''I put on the board: Refuse to lose,'' Calipari said. ''It's that time of the year. Refuse to lose. Figure out a way.''
And figure it out quickly.
Kentucky responded with a decisive 73-61 victory that made up for in grit what it lacked in polish. The Wildcats (17-6, 5-4 SEC) turned it over 16 times but played with a tenacity lacking during a recent two-game slide.
Junior guard DeAndre Liggins harassed Tennessee's top scorer Scotty Hopson into 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting and exploded at the other end of the floor, tying a career high with 19 points.
It was the kind of performance Calipari was looking for from Liggins, who is almost too selfless at times. Though Liggins doesn't possess the kind of offensive skills of his younger teammates, Calipari said he deserved to put it up more considering how hard he plays on defense.
''I said, DeAndre, if we throw it ahead and can make plays, go make them,''' Calipari said. ''How hard he's working, he deserves it. We got guys shooting balls, going through the motions. You don't deserve to shoot it. Let him shoot it.''
Liggins made 5-of-6 field goals and consistently got to the free-throw line, where he knocked down 7 of 8 shots.
''I just try to help out my teammates, but sometimes (Calipari) wants me to be selfish,'' Liggins said.
More importantly, he wants the Wildcats to be tough. Liggins was able to get loose thanks in part to five steals, allowing him to get easy baskets in transition.
Liggins didn't wait for the Volunteers to come to him, he attacked, rising to the challenge laid down by Calipari who questioned his team's toughness during road losses to Mississippi and Florida.
Calipari put a heavy bag in the team's practice facility and ordered his players to put on boxing gloves, part of the changes he promised as the Wildcats faced the first ''crisis'' - as Calipari put it - of his tenure.
''We went to the heavy bag and we showed them how to box, how to jab,'' Calipari said. ''I'm just saying, 'Look, you've got to be rough. You've got to be willing to fight. You've got to be willing to take their stuff. You can't let people take our stuff.'''
Senior center Josh Harrellson worked out some of his anger over his ineffective play the last month by trying to punch his way through the bag. He couldn't quite pull it off, though Calipari will take Harrellson's spirited 16-point, six-rebound effort anytime.
''For two weeks, he was (messing around),'' Calipari said. ''He was. Look, there's one person you cannot fool: yourself. You're not fooling yourself. You can fool everybody else. You're not fooling yourself.''
Harrellson seemed on the verge of a breakout after putting up a career-defining 23-points against Louisville in December. Instead, he'd regressed, averaging just 3.7 points in Kentucky's disappointing 4-4 start in the Southeastern Conference. His lackadaisical commitment wasn't lost on his teammates.
''He wasn't he wasn't practicing hard, everybody called him out on it,'' Liggins said.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, back on the bench after serving an eight-game suspension for lying to NCAA investigators about the team's recruiting practices, called the inspired play of Liggins and Harrellson the tipping point.
''Those two guys (Liggins and Harrellson) gave Kentucky some real energy plays, physical plays I thought were a big difference in the game,'' Pearl said.
Kentucky's job now is to keep it going. The Wildcats are just 1-4 on the road in conference play and travel to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
''Guys have just got to realize what it takes to win on the road,'' Liggins said. ''This game is over. It's time to move on.''