Scout.com/Jeff Drummond

Big night for Murray, career night for Willis carry Kentucky Wildcats past Tennessee

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In the aftermath of the best game of his college career, one would imagine Kentucky's Derek Willis was all smiles.

Far from it.

"My whole body is hurting," the Wildcats' junior forward revealed, sitting hunched over from back spasms and sporting ice packs on both of his aching knees. "... I'm just trying to play through it and figure it out later."

Willis had it figured out when it mattered most on Thursday night against Tennessee. He scored a career-high 25 points, including a 7-for-11 night from the 3-point arc, to help lead the No. 14 Wildcats to an 80-70 win over the Volunteers.

The Mount Washington, Ky., native teamed with freshman guard Jamal Murray, who scored a game-high 28 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds, as UK avenged a disappointing 84-77 loss in Knoxville two weeks ago in which the Cats blew a 21-point lead. 

Perhaps motivation to play through the pain? 

"Tonight, I didn't even really play hard," Willis said. "I hate to say that, but I didn't feel like I played hard. I'm just being honest. I'm not trying to put it on my body right now because it feels like crap. I feel like I could have gotten more rebounds, could have played better defense."

Kentucky (20-6, 10-3 SEC) moved into sole possession of first place in the conference. Tennessee (12-14, 5-8) again played well against the Cats, but could not overcome the big games from Murray and Willis.

"Coming in... you have to believe (Tyler Ulis) and Jamal Murray are going to get theirs," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "What you hope is that you don’t let a guy like Willis breakout like he does. They do enough that they’re going to get theirs, so you can’t let the third or fourth guy get going. That’s what happened.”

Ulis had an off night shooting the ball but still finished with 11 points, nine assists and only two turnovers in 35 minutes of action.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said Willis' emergence has been the defining moment of the Cats' season: "What's changed our team is Derek. He made us a totally different team. The minute we said... 'Then you say why didn't you do it earlier?' Didn't know. When we went to it, it was obvious everybody could see he just changed our team."

The Cats held Tennessee to 38 percent from the field, including a 4-for-14 shooting night for leading scorer Kevin Punter. He managed to post 19 points with the help of a 9-for-10 night at the free-throw line, but still fell short of his impressive 22.3 scoring average. Armani Moore led the Vols with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

UK played its fourth consecutive game without senior forward Alex Poythress, who is sidelined by a minor knee issue, and saw junior center Marcus Lee leave the game with an undetermined back injury after just 17 minutes of play.

 In this AW "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some quick-hitters from the Cats' victory...

KEY MOMENTS:

After a sluggish start, Kentucky took its first lead of the night at 11-9 on a Murray 3-pointer with 10:20 remaining the first half. That shot was part of a 15-1 run that saw the Cats take a 21-10 lead. UK held Tennessee for more than nine minutes without a field goal during the stretch, eventually taking a 36-30 lead into the half. The Cats went on a 13-1 run early in the second half to open some breathing room and led by as many as 22 on a Skal Labissiere jumper with 10:53 remaining in the game.

BY THE NUMBERS:

1st - Time since 1993 that Kentucky has made 10 or more 3-pointers in four consecutive games.

16 - Consecutive games in which at least one Wildcat has scored 20 or more points.

23 - Rebounds for UK's three-man starting backcourt of Isaiah Briscoe (10), Murray (9) and Ulis (4).

60th - UK season with 20 or more victories.

76 - Or more points scored by UK in nine consecutive games, the longest streak for the Cats since the 1995-96 national championship season.

QUOTABLE:

"I think we were all so determined to beat this team after what happened last game. I know for me, I just knew I had to get rebounds, block some shots and try not to foul." -- UK freshman center Isaac Humphries, who came off the bench to score three points, grab six rebounds and block two shots.

UP NEXT:

It's a quick turnaround for the Cats, who travel to Texas A&M on Saturday for a clash between two of the SEC's top clubs. ESPN's College Gameday will be in College Station for the game, which will air at 6:30 p.m. ET.


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