For the majority of the first half, Anthony Davis was just like the 24,387 fans in Rupp Arena: a spectator.
He watched as Kentucky grabbed a 15-point lead with just over five minutes left in the first half, only to see archrival Louisville storm back to close the deficit to 36-33 at halftime. He watched as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist dominated to the tune of 16 points and eight rebounds.
By the time the second half started, Davis was done with that whole bystander thing.
“Being in foul trouble and sitting on the bench, it’s really hard for you to get going,” Davis said. “(UK head coach John Calipari) just told me to go out there and play aggressive and play like he knows I can play. That’s what I tried to do in the second half.”
Without question, Davis did just that.
After sitting out the final 11:32 of the opening half due to a pair of fouls, Davis played every minute of the second half, just like Kidd-Gilchrist. The swingman will deservedly get the lion’s share of the attention for his 24-point, 19-rebound effort that earned Most Valuable Player honors in UK’s 69-62 victory, but Davis completely changed the complexion of the game when he checked back in.
He scored 18 points and grabbed six rebounds after the break en route to his third consecutive double-double, but it was on the defensive end where he exerted his most substantial impact, proving Calipari’s halftime speech prophetic in the process.
“I told them at halftime … ‘Look, they’re getting layups right now because he’s not in the game,’ ” Calipari said. ” ‘When I put him back in at the start of the second half, you’ll see what he does for you guys.’ I think he got three or four blocks right away.”
Davis had five blocks and two steals in the second half, which made his absence in the first half even more conspicuous. When UK was up 31-16 with 5:09 left in the first, Louisville went on a 17-3 run, mostly on the strength of Russ Smith’s drives the basket, as he scored seven points during the spurt. Once Davis returned, those opportunities quickly turned into harsh rejections at the rim.
“What you have to do to get to the basket against that guy is almost impossible,” Smith said. “The amount of room he covers around the basket is incredible. Davis is a very solid player.”
“Solid” may be somewhat of an understatement. His five blocks bring his season total to 64 as he continues his seemingly inevitable ascent to the single-season record at UK. To provide some more perspective on Davis’ defense, 295 Division teams entered Saturday with fewer than 64.
With Davis anchoring the defense, UK held Louisville to just eight points over a crucial 10-plus-minute stretch during the middle portion of the second half. The two teams were tied to begin the period, but by the time it was over, UK led 58-48 and U of L wouldn’t come closer than seven the rest of the way.
The message Calipari sent to his big man at halftime was to maintain his aggressiveness on both ends without fouling. Rather than leaving his feet early, Davis avoided fouls in the second by staying on the floor. His length and athleticism allows him to effectively contest shots by even the tallest of players without trying to anticipate their releases, like Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng. With 3:25 left in the second half, the Cardinals fed Dieng in the post with Davis guarding him one-on-one. Dieng backed Davis down and used multiple pump fakes, but Davis didn’t bite. When Dieng finally went up, Davis rose and got a piece of the ball.
By playing more disciplined defense, Davis picked up just one foul in the second half, which is somewhat amazing since 52 total fouls were called in an extremely physical game. UK’s Marquis Teague and U of L’s Chane Behanan fouled out while six more players had at least four fouls, so by the time Davis stepped on the floor for the second half with just two, fouls were hardly an issue relatively speaking. Calipari would have liked to get Davis back on the floor in the first, but with how important the freshman is to the team, he was unwilling to risk it.
“I just wish Anthony Davis hadn’t gotten that second foul in that first half because I would have liked to see him play more,” Calipari said. “He was too valuable to the team to go back to him.”
Davis may not have enjoyed riding the bench for such an extended period, but he understood why he had to. Calipari wanted him to be able to play without being limited by fouls in the second, which is just what he was able to do. Davis was able to attack the glass with reckless abandon as he grabbed 10 rebounds for the game in helping the Cats to an astounding 57-31 edge on the boards.
“Knowing that you’re not in that much of foul trouble going into the second half and that you have three fouls to give, it makes the game a lot easier,” Davis said. “You can be more aggressive, go for every rebound, dive on the floor and contest shots.”
For the most part, the way Davis played in the second half came as no surprise to anyone who has watched the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, but there was a positive development in one notable area. Of course, he had his requisite alley oops and a basket off an offensive rebound, but Davis scored two-thirds of his points at the free throw line. He had shot just 27-of-46 (58.7 percent) from the stripe coming into Saturday’s game, but drained 12-of-13 attempts, much to the surprise of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino.
“We didn’t mind fouling Davis,” Pitino said. “It looked like he was a shaky free throw shooter and suddenly looked like Jerry West out there.”
Davis’ explained simply that his improvement at the line was due to spending additional time in practice and if it keeps up, it could change the way he plays on offense. His stroke has always been sound, but the shots haven’t been falling. Now that he knows he can knock the free ones down, he could make a living at the charity stripe.
“If you were him, wouldn’t you ball fake, step through, ball fake, just get fouled,” Calipari said. “Why even shoot the ball? Get fouled.”
Guy Ramsey is the editor of Cat Scratches, the official blog of UKAthletics. You can read his work at http://www.ukathletics.com/blog/.