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Cats Hold Off Tennessee 75-65 With Wiltjer's 17 Points

This article appears courtesy of RCN partner KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale.

In his just more than one and one-half years on campus, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer has developed a reputation as one of the best three-point shooters in the country when his shot is falling.

However, when that shot isn’t working like Wiltjer would like, his contributions to the team have been called into question by his head coach.

Tuesday, in a 75-65 win versus Tennessee, Wiltjer made steps in bucking that reputation.

“For the first time since he’s been here, he told me to run a play for him, which I absolutely did,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “Because the minute a young man comes to you and says, “Coach, run four down,” you run it, because now it’s off me and it’s on him.”

Wiltjer’s confidence paid off in a made basket, so he called for the play again, and it worked for a second time.

“In practice, we had run some sets for me, just like we kind of designed them,” Wiltjer said. “In the game, I just said, ‘Cal, can we run that play?’ I knew that the defender would cheat on the screen, so we just ran it and I knocked it down.”

Wiltjer has posted some impressive scoring games in his UK career — including two games with seven three-pointers this season — but Tuesday’s performance may have been his most complete effort to-date.

He finished the game with 17 points, including eight from inside the three-point arc and a season-high three free throws. He also contributed five rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

The game ended a disappointing start to Southeastern Conference play for Wiltjer. In his first two conference games, he had combined for two points on one of seven shooting.

While struggling to contribute on defense, Wiltjer saw his playing time diminish. He played a season-low 14 minutes versus Vanderbilt then 19 minutes against Texas A&M.

“I’ve just been trying to stay positive and just work hard every day in practice — not only in practice, just get extra work in,” he said. “I think it’s helped pay off. I just need to keep being aggressive on both ends.”

With the game tied at 56 and 6:27 remaining, UK opened up some breathing room with an 8-2 run, sparked by back-to-back threes from senior guard Julius Mays.

Wiltjer then scored UK’s next five points to put the game out of reach.

“Kyle was terrific,” Calipari said.

While Tennessee had missed a chance to make the game closer when it got no points out of a flagrant foul call against Mays, the performance marked and improvement for UK’s end-game play after the Wildcats turned a late four-point lead into a 12-point loss versus Texas A&M Saturday.

Fans may have expected a wider margin of victory with Tennessee in the midst of a two-game losing streak and struggling to the tune of an 8-6 record entering the game, but Calipari was simply happy to escape with another win.

“In the last seven, eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely ‘whomped’ on people, and this ain’t one of them,” Calipari said. “Every game, we are going to be in is going to be a dogfight, and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it and coach that way.

“I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody, because you get up 12, 15, someone will try to steal a ball; they will foul; they will leave their feet. On an out-of-bounds play, one guy will not do what he’s supposed to, give up two layups.”

UK’s results thus far certainly back-up Calipari’s theory. The Wildcats are 3-5 in games against BCS conference teams with the wins coming by an average of five points.

“I think we just kill ourselves out there sometimes,” said freshman forward Alex Poythress, who finished the game with 10 points and eight rebounds. “We make our own mistakes, just not tight. We’ll turn over the ball. We just don’t know how to demolish a team."

Still, players have hope they can develop into a team that steps on the gas when it’s up big instead of letting its opponent back in the game.

“In time, I feel that way,” said freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who scored 12 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked six shots and tallied four steals Tuesday. “But right now, it’s a process. We’ve got different types of players. To get to the stage where we’re really beating teams by 20 or 30 — it’s not right now. We’re just going to be patient and keep working toward that time.”

Calipari is not holding his breath that the team will ever consistently blow out its opponents, but he saw enough improvement versus Tennessee to suggest the Wildcats can still cash in on their considerable potential.

“Look folks, we are what we are,” he said. “I love this team. We have so much upside. We are going to be in dogfights.”

Written by Jon Hale

Photo: Kyle Wiltjer defended by UT player Tuesday night