Kentucky-born seniors help raise Cats over Shockers

INDIANAPOLIS – They didn’t want their seasons to end, and they especially didn’t want their collegiate careers to end, so Kentucky-born seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis did everything in their power to push UK over the top.

In the first half, it was Hawkins’ offense that helped steady a cold-shooting Cats team. In the second half, Willis hit timely 3-pointers and showed great energy on the glass and defensive end.

Put it together, and the second-seeded Wildcats are going to the Sweet 16 after a 65-62 win over the Wichita State Shockers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“In the first half, Dom just played outstanding,” Coach Cal said. “I was thinking about starting him in the second half, but we got a good group that sticks together so I just went with what I was doing. … I played Derek almost the whole (second) half. He played well. Then Derek made the 3 in the corner, made a couple of 3s, rebounded pretty good. Ended up with eight rebounds and nine points. Think of that. Three steals. Derek Willis.”

Kentucky struggled to score in the first half, shooting just 33.3 percent from the field (10-30), and went through two-plus minute scoring droughts on three separate occasions, including one stretch of 3:43. At the half, UK had just 26 points, tying its second lowest first-half point total of the year.

Dominique Hawkins scored seven points in the first half for UK on 3-of-3 shooting. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Dominique Hawkins scored seven points in the first half for UK on 3-of-3 shooting. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Not included in those first-half struggles was Hawkins, who scored all seven of his points in the first half on 3-of-3 shooting, including one 3-pointer.

“I just felt like I needed to be more aggressive,” Hawkins said. “I saw that nobody really was scoring so I just took the chances, drive in the lane and try to get some easy shots.”

Willis’ shot was off in the first half (0-2), but he grabbed four rebounds, blocked a shot and had a steal. During the halftime break, clinging to a two-point lead, Willis sat down and knew he could play better.

So he did.

In the second half, Willis grabbed four more rebounds, hit 2-of-3 3-point attempts en route to nine points and had two more steals. He finished the game playing a team-high 33 minutes – two more than any other Wildcat.

“I went out there and I think coming in at halftime I knew I wasn’t doing the stuff I was capable of doing,” Willis said. “So, I came out the start of the second half and turned it up another level and got the job done.”

Willis is now just 0.1 percent behind Malik Monk as the Wildcats’ most accurate 3-point shooter (among players with at least two attempts), but it’s his improvement on the defensive end that has likely earned him such steady playing time and starts in each of the past seven games.

Over the first 29 games of the season, Willis had 21 blocks (0.72 bpg). But over the past seven games, Willis has swatted 17 shots (2.43 bpg). His three steals Sunday tied a career high and gives him five over the Wildcats’ opening two NCAA Tournament contests.

Derek Willis has blocked 17 shots over his past seven games. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Derek Willis has blocked 17 shots over his past seven games. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“It’s great to watch Derek always play great,” Hawkins said. “Every time he shoots the ball I’m always thinking it’s going to go in because I’ve been playing with him for four years and watched him play in high school as well. Tremendous player and I’m proud of him for what he did today.”

Following a Willis 3-pointer with 8:09 to go, Kentucky’s three star freshmen, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox, scored Kentucky’s final 17 points of the game, but without Hawkins’ steady offense in the first half and Willis’ work on the glass and strong second half, Monk and Adebayo’s game-clinching blocks may never have been necessary.

As to be expected with these two Kentucky-born seniors, Hawkins and Willis shrugged off the compliments of their strong performances after the game. They were just happy to be moving on to the Sweet 16 in Memphis, Tennessee.

“It’s always good. It’s senior year,” Willis said. “You want to go as far as you can go. We have the talent and I feel like other than the slow start we’re still on the incline with the whole peaking thing and all that. Like I said, we haven’t peaked yet, but we’re right about there.”