LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky’s perimeter struggles had started to reach the point where its shooters seemed hesitant to fire away despite open looks.
Isaiah Briscoe then sank one in the second half to remind the No. 5 Wildcats the opportunities were there, and when others such as Jamal Murray began following his lead, things finally began falling into place.
Murray scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half, including two of the team’s five 3-pointers that helped the Wildcats pull away from Arizona State 72-58 Saturday.
Leading 32-31 at halftime and looking somewhat lost with senior forward Alex Poythress temporarily sidelined with a hyperextended right knee, the Wildcats (9-1) regrouped to play more crisply and aggressively. Most importantly, Kentucky found its outside shooting touch, hitting 5 of 10 from long range after a 1-for-11 performance in the first half.
“When we hit shots, we change the game,” said Murray, who made just 4 of 13 from the field but hit 2 of 6 3-pointers. “It makes a lot of different plays easier.”
Though the Wildcats shot below 30 percent from behind the arc for the sixth time this season, they viewed their finish as something to build on.
“I’m not worried about it,” coach John Calipari said. “I’m telling these guys, I want Jamal and Tyler (Ulis) prepared to shoot a 3 every single time and if they crowd you, then you’ve got to drive it. If they don’t crowd you, then you’re looking to shoot.”
Marcus Lee came off the bench to add 14 points and seven rebounds for Kentucky, while Ulis had 12 points, including two from behind the arc. Poythress returned to play the second half and finish with 10 points and six rebounds, which helped offset continuing struggles by Skal Labissiere.
The 6-foot-11 freshman didn’t have a point or rebound and fouled out after just 13 minutes. He has just 18 points and seven rebounds combined over four games, but teammates believe he’ll eventually snap out of his funk.
“He just needs to work through it, keep going to the gym and keep working,” said forward Derek Willis, whose seven points included a 3. “That’s just how you get better.”
Tra Holder had 15 points and Kodi Justice added 12 for Arizona State (6-3), which outrebounded Kentucky 22-14 in the first half before the Wildcats flipped that number in the second to finish even on the boards. The Sun Devils made just 11 of 31 from the field (36 percent) in the second half and 37 percent overall as their three-game winning streak ended.
Kentucky shot 15 of 26 from the field in the second half (58 percent) and 44 percent overall.
“We did some pretty good things in the first half,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said, “and then we didn’t carry that into the second half. We dug ourselves a hole. We did a fairly good job of keeping their guards out of the lane; not a great effort for us defensively in the second half.”
Those first 20 minutes, however, provided Kentucky the challenge that Calipari warned about.
Poythress provided an early spark with seven points including a monstrous one-handed flying dunk after stealing an inbounds pass. But Kentucky seemed lost after the senior went to the locker room with the knee injury with 7 1/2 minutes left in a half featuring 31 percent shooting.
The second half was a different story as Briscoe’s 3-pointer provided a 40-33 lead, setting up Murray to hit two 3s while Ulis and Willis each added one. Kentucky was also more physical thanks to Lee’s effort off the bench.
“It’s great knowing that I have such a big impact on my team,” Lee said.
Arizona State: This was the Sun Devils’ most-lopsided loss this season. Their other two defeats were by a combined eight points.
Kentucky: Willis emerged with a shaved head after a failed experiment to dye his hair blond left his locks looking grayish. “I looked like Jack Frost, so I cut it off,” he said.
Arizona State visits UNLV on Wednesday.
Kentucky faces Ohio State in New York on Saturday.