LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins saw Rider’s Brandon Penn pull up from well behind the 3-point line and stretched every last inch of his 6-foot-11 frame in an effort to get a hand on the ball.
Guarding an opponent 22 feet from the basket isn’t something Cousins does often. And he plowed into Penn as the ball clanged off the rim, but Cousins’ effort perhaps the surest sign that Kentucky coach John Calipari’s message to his team that it needed to get serious about defense had come through loud and clear.
Playing with the kind of intensity sorely lacking in its first three games, No. 4 Kentucky roared past the Broncs 92-63 on Saturday, hardly looking like the club Calipari called the “worst” defensive team he’s seen in 20 years following narrow escapes against Miami (Ohio) and Sam Houston State.
The Wildcats (4-0) held Rider to 31 percent shooting—including just 4-of-17 3-pointers—and added 10 steals and 10 blocks in easily their most complete game of the season.
“There has to be a sense of urgency defensively, we had that today,” Calipari said.
The urgency was necessary after Kentucky allowed the Bearkats and the RedHawks to combine for 33 3-pointers while nearly upsetting the Wildcats earlier in the week, games that proved to be eye-openers for both Calipari and his players.
The coach said he was “embarrassed” by his team’s apathy and let them know about it during a film session on Friday. Calipari spared no one—not even stars John Wall and Patrick Patterson—from some pointed if good-natured criticism.
“Some of it was almost hysterical,” Calipari said. “They were laughing at each other.”
Things were decidedly more serious on the court against the Broncs (2-2).
With the Wildcats shutting down Rider’s long-range shooting, Wall found plenty of room to go to work on the break. The freshman finished with 21 points, 11 assists and six rebounds as Kentucky took control early then kept the pressure on.
“Everybody played big,” Wall said. “I smiled more than I usually do because we were having a great time and we were playing defense. We have to do this every game.”
Calipari was happy to settle for just one game, particularly against the Broncs who had already knocked off Mississippi State and came in making 48 percent of its 3-pointers.
“I was fearful of this game until I saw how we defended early in the game and then I felt fine,” Calipari said.
Wall and Patterson—who had 19 points and 18 rebounds—did their best to put their coach at ease.
Ryan Thompson led Rider with 16 points, but the Broncs simply didn’t have the firepower to keep up.
“They made it hard on us,” said Rider coach Tommy Dempsey.
Kentucky outscored Rider in the paint 56-20 and had 24 second-chance points, but it was the perimeter defense that allowed the Wildcats to get on the break and let Wall go to work.
During one dazzling stretch in the first half Wall put together a series of spectacular moves in the open floor that showcased why he’s considered a can’t-miss NBA prospect.
On one break he completed a flawless 360-degree spin in the lane for a layup. Moments later he followed it with a steal, a basket and the foul.
The prettiest move, however, was a coast-to-coast sprint in which Wall dribbled the ball between his legs at full speed while switching from his left hand to his right hand. He made the layup while absorbing the contact then knocked down the free-throw to put Kentucky 27-14 with 8:16 to go in the first half.
“He’s as good as I’ve ever seen in the open floor,” Dempsey said.
And unlike Kentucky’s first three games, when the Wildcats relaxed when things appeared to be in hand, this time there would be no letdown.
Cousins and fellow freshman center Daniel Orton combined for 32 points and 12 rebounds and Kentucky received plenty of production off the bench after the starters scored all 102 points in the win over Sam Houston State.
Kentucky led 51-26 at the break and never let Rider get within 20 points the rest of the way. At times putting Patterson, Cousins and Orton on the floor together, the Wildcats had little trouble getting whatever they wanted inside.
It’s a combination they’ll need in Cancun. Kentucky plays Cleveland State on Tuesday and either Virginia or Stanford on Wednesday.
“We are just so far from where we need to be,” Calipari said. “But we were focused. They were more concerned about their teammates than themselves. We’re making strides.”