Julius Randle said he always dreamed of coming home and playing in his home state. On Friday night, Baylor's defense made it clear that not all dreams have a happy ending.
The Wildcats big man scored 16 points, but No. 3 Kentucky's offense fell apart down the stretch, as No. 20 Baylor pulled off a surprising 67-62 win at AT&T Stadium in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
With the women's game between these two schools lasting four overtimes and pushing the start time back by more than an hour, both sides came out and attempted to give the smattering of fans who stayed a worthy nightcap.
The two teams spent much of the evening battling with just one or two possessions of separation. Every Kentucky run was matched with one by Baylor and vice versa. But thanks to some strategical ingenuity from Bears head coach Scott Drew, Baylor's last run proved to be the death knell for the favored Wildcats.
Playing a hybrid of a 1-3-1 and 2-3 zone—most possessions began in a 1-3-1 before reverting to the more standard 2-3—the Bears put the clamps on Kentucky down the stretch. The Wildcats led by as many as nine in the second half, but after a James Young three-pointer gave them a 53-49 lead with 9:38 remaining, the well went dry.
Jumpers clanked off the rim, turnovers piled up and center Isaiah Austin's size helped divert the Kentucky offense away from Randle. The result was a more than six-minute run without a field goal for the Wildcats and a stretch run that saw their lone field goal come on a Young shot with 3:10 left in the contest.
Kentucky finished the game shooting just 42 percent from the field, playing into Drew's game-plan to slow down the young Wildcats.
Baylor didn't light up the rim, either, shooting 47.3 percent, but it got shots whenever they were most needed. Canadian transfer Kenny Chery led the way with a game-high 18 points, and Austin and Cory Jefferson each had 13 as the Bears recovered from a 38-35 halftime deficit.
In a season that's been so heavily defined by the individual dominance of Randle, the first half saw every Kentucky starter contribute—a sign that the Wildcats were moving the ball against the zone. Each Wildcat who was on the floor for the opening tip concluded the first 20 minutes with at least five points, highlighted by 11 by the surging Aaron Harrison.
The freshman guard, who has struggled mightily with his shot in the early part of the season, found his range from beyond the arc and thrived against the Baylor zone. He hit three of his first four three-pointers, including a run where he scored six of Kentucky's eight points, helping the Wildcats close a 16-9 deficit to 20-17 with 12:09 remaining in the first half.
Harrison's second three sparked a strange scoreless drought for both sides, as the game went nearly three minutes without a field goal. Randle ended that run with a jumper, Harrison added another three to draw the score to 23-22 and the two sides played within one possession for almost the entire last nine minutes.
Kentucky took the lead into halftime on the back of the Harrison twins, with Andrew atoning for a frustrating first 19 minutes with five straight to close out the half.
Still, the Wildcats weren't able to pull away. Jefferson and Austin each kept the Bears within a couple possessions, taking advantage of shaky interior defense and dominating on the glass—a trend that continued well into the second half. Baylor out-rebounded Kentucky 41-25, including 18 second-chance opportunities thanks to offensive rebounds. Reserve forward Rico Gathers alone had a game-high 13 rebounds.
Some of that onus goes on Randle, who failed to record a double-double for just the second time in his young career. Playing before his mother and other friends and family, the Dallas native at times disappeared in the second half after being brilliant for the first 20 minutes.
John Calipari's Wildcats have now lost both of their games against ranked opponents this season, and have struggled mightily away from their home floor going back to 2012-13.
Nonetheless, the credit goes to Baylor, a team that simply outworked its more-talented opponent to record its first big win of the season.
|F Willie Cauley-Stein||C|
|F Julius Randle||B|
|G James Young||B-|
|G Aaron Harrison||B|
|G Andrew Harrison||D+|
|F Alex Poythress||D+|
|C Dakari Johnson||C|
|F Marcus Lee||C|
|G Dominique Hawkins||C|
|F Cory Jefferson||B-|
|F Royce O'Neale||C|
|C Isaiah Austin||B+|
|G Kenny Chery||B+|
|G Gary Franklin||C-|
|F Rico Gathers||B-|
|F Taurean Prince||B-|
|G Ish Wainright||C|
|G Brady Heslip||C|
Co-Players of the Game: Julius Randle (F, Kentucky), Isaiah Austin (C, Baylor)
You can probably just Sharpie Randle in as POTG for any Kentucky contest now and into the future. Teams predicate their entire defensive schemes around stopping Randle, running zones that allow for easy traps without leaving impossible rotations and taking advantage of the Wildcats' lack of shooters.
And despite the best efforts of Baylor's bigs in the middle, Randle was still able to put together a stellar evening. It wasn't a monster scoring effort—this was Randle's fourth straight game under the 20-point barrier—but the other improvements in his game have been marked.
Early in the season, Randle would have barreled through double teams, turned the ball over and sent the opposition in transition. On Friday, the Wildcats probably could have used more aggression at points, but the overall unselfishness in Randle's game was encouraging. He was swinging the ball to open shooters, creating hockey assists and doing a bunch of other little things that have to impress NBA scouts.
On the other side, getting a game like this from Austin has to be encouraging. The seven-footer started the season slow, but was a dominant force inside the paint defensively against Kentucky. He was the key force inside the Bears' zone, swatting shots, altering others and generally having a Roy Hibbert-like effect on the game.
You'd like Austin to flash some more rebounding acumen, but Baylor won with its defense. Austin was the key to that effort.
Kentucky will look to bounce back when it returns to Lexington for a matchup against Boise State on Tuesday. The Wildcats are likely going to use that matchup as a prelude to their road trip to Tar Heel country on Dec. 14. Baylor also gets a massive scheduling reprieve in its upcoming contests, taking on Northwestern State on Dec. 18 as the first of four straight matchups with unranked opponents.
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