LOUISVILLE – Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb had a few reasons for putting the NBA on hold and returning to UK as sophomores, but one of the main motives was to avenge a loss in last season’s Final Four.
If Kentucky’s opening-round NCAA Tournament game Thursday night is any indication, they’re poised to get back there.
Terrence Jones recorded the third double-double of his NCAA Tournament career (22 points and 10 rebounds) and Doron Lamb scored 16 points to lead an 81-66 rout of Western Kentucky on Thursday night at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. Both were career-high scoring outputs for the sophomores in NCAA Tournament play.
UK will face Iowa State on Saturday in the third round at approximately 7:45 p.m. on CBS.
“Coach always says that the first game is the hardest,” Jones said. “The freshmen were, I know I was last year, a little nervous (with) all the pressure on us. It wasn’t even as much pressure last year as it is this year. Just to get the first-game jitters out, I just wanted to have fun and tell everybody just to run.”
Kentucky, using a transition-focused offense, ran past Western Kentucky as Jones asserted himself early and finished with his fourth double-double of the season and third in his last four games.
“I’m trying to do it just to win really,” Jones said. “I feel more comfortable with myself and just being aggressive. It’s that time of the year when you need it, so I’m just trying to be more aggressive for everybody on the court in the postseason.”
With WKU hanging around early, Kentucky closed the half on a 27-9 run to go up 45-26 at halftime. Jones and Lamb combined for 16 of those points, highlighted by a one-hand tomahawk dunk by Jones in transition.
John Calipari called his sophomore a “beast” and said he’s played “terrific” the last month.
“That’s how we need him to play,” Coach Cal said. “I told him before the game, ‘You just worry about rebounding and your offense will happen.’ Last year at this time, we made a run in the tournament because he rebounded the ball like crazy. As a matter of fact, in the game we lost against Connecticut, he had 15 rebounds and he was rebounding every ball. Much better offensive player than he was a year ago and now he’s rebounding.”
Terrence Jones broke quickly from the gate, playing with a purpose as he record a double-double, posting 22 points (9-of-13 field goals) and 10 rebounds.
Jones, playing in his 71st career game, surpassed 1,000-point mark early in the first half, becoming the 59th player in program history to join the 1,000-point club.
All that’s meaningless to Jones and his teammates right now. What matters to them is Jones is turning it on at the right time of the year.
“It makes a big difference (when he plays like that),” Jones said. “You can see it in the score. If Terrence plays well, then we win by a big margin. If he doesn’t, we might still win, but not the way we want it to be.”
The same can be said for Lamb. When he was cruising, Kentucky pulled away from Western Kentucky. The sophomore guard hit two 3-pointers, but he also made a concerted effort to get out in transition and take the ball to the basket.
“We’re trying to get more fast-break points,” Lamb said. “In the SEC Tournament we didn’t get a lot of fast-break points, so after that loss to Vandy we came back at practice and we did a lot of transition on defense and pushing the ball and trying to get easy baskets. We did that today.”
After weathering an early 12-0 run by Western Kentucky, the Cats left no doubt in Thursday’s outcome with the type of victory you’d expect of the top overall seed against a team with a losing record.
Using that loss in the SEC championship as a motivating springboard, UK poured it on Western Kentucky in the second half with a flurry of dunks, six after halftime.
“We knew that it was going to be open with the way they were playing defense,” Davis said. “We knew it was going to be open so we ran a couple plays to get them kind of plays. We were playing like that from the beginning. It just pumps up the crowd. … The crowd really got into it and I think it got into the other team’s head.”
Thursday was par for the course for Davis as he once again flirted with a triple-double (16 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks). His seven swats set UK’s NCAA Tournament record for blocked shots, and his rafter-reaching alley-oop dunk on a feed from Darius Miller was the highlight of the game.
“Me and Darius, he does that all the time in practice,” Davis said. “He just throws it. Coach Cal just tells him to throw it. I knew I could get it. I was at the perfect angle. I saw Darius coming and I knew he was going to throw a lob just because No. 22 is 6-11 with a long span. He just tried to get it over him and I just timed it perfectly.”
Western Kentucky did what it has done all postseason by making a game-ending 19-4 charge, but UK’s 32-point lead was entirely too much to overcome, as was its stingy defense. T.J. Price scored 21 points for the Hilltoppers, but WKU was held to 39.7 percent from the field.
The ending for the Cats took a little fizzle out of a dominating performance, but it did little to spoil another late-season encouraging sign from Jones.
“His intensity has been a lot higher,” Miller said. “I feel like we’re a way, way better team when he does that because he’s one of the best players on the team. When he plays like that we feed off of it. … If he continues to be like that, I feel like we’ll be tough to beat.”