LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Moving gingerly on crutches and showing little emotion two days after sustaining a season-ending knee injury, soft-spoken Kentucky forward Alex Poythress didn’t hesitate when coach John Calipari asked him to lead the pregame remarks.
The junior’s words and presence provided motivation for the top-ranked Wildcats to make sure No. 21 North Carolina didn’t take advantage of his absence.
Devin Booker and Willie Cauley-Stein each scored 15 points and Kentucky shook off the shock of losing Poythress by rolling past No. 21 North Carolina 84-70 on Saturday.
“It was good because I didn’t know if he was going to be able to (be there),” Cauley-Stein said of his friend’s arrival at Rupp Arena after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in practice on Thursday.
The Wildcats (11-0) used their superior depth, length and strong shooting to post a convincing win over the Tar Heels (6-3).
Booker returned from a one-game absence to make all three long-range attempts and 5 of 8 overall on a day that Kentucky shot 57 percent from the field — including a season-best 7 of 15 from behind the arc after struggling the past few games.
The Wildcats never trailed and eventually built a 19-point second half lead, though North Carolina got within 66-57 midway through as Marcus Paige (14 points) warmed up from outside. The Wildcats answered with a 14-5 run over 5:56 for another safe cushion.
Aaron Harrison added 14 points, Andrew Harrison had 11 and freshman Trey Lyles had nine starting in Poythress’ place.
Brice Johnson’s 15 points led the Tar Heels, who won the rebounding battle 31-24 but found little success against the Wildcats’ size.
“They were far more superior on the defensive end than our offense was,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I thought they dictated what we did on the offensive end with their athleticism, quickness, strength and size.”
Kentucky conquered another challenging opponent, no easy feat considering how Poythress’ injury left a somber mood around the practice facility.
Players showed support for their injured teammate by wearing blue “Roar for 22” T-shirts during warmups, and Poythress entered on crutches to a loud ovation before a showdown between two of college basketball’s three winningest programs.
Kentucky answered the question about the injury’s effect on its two-platoon system, with Poythress starting on the first unit. The Wildcats used it at times but mostly went with a combination of its nine-deep group of regulars.
“There’s a lot of things (that) we got to try,” Calipari said. “I platooned today, but I did it with nine guys instead of doing it with 10.”
Kentucky’s second platoon featuring Booker and Tyler Ulis was especially productive, as the two hit consecutive 3-pointers against the zone to spark a 16-8 lead. Ulis finished with a career-high eight assists and Marcus Lee added eight points.
“There was nothing to prove, just to ourselves that we can’t have letdowns like we did the last game (a 10-point win over Columbia),” said Cauley-Stein, who also had six rebounds and four steals. “If we can play this way against top teams in the country, we should be playing like this all the time.”
With his right calf wrapped in ice, Ulis said his two-game absence was because the leg was a “little hurt.” The 5-foot-9 freshman left the game briefly in the second half with a cramp in the leg, but said it wasn’t related to the previous injury.
North Carolina: Paige became the 71st Tar Heel with 1,000 career points.
Kentucky: Last season’s leading scorer, Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle, came out to cheers to spell the “Y” in Kentucky during a second-half timeout. Randle is out for the season with a knee injury.
North Carolina: Visits North Carolina-Greensboro on Tuesday.
Kentucky: Plays UCLA on Dec. 20 in Chicago.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.