GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — After looking somewhat wobbly a couple of weeks ago, No. 20 Kentucky appears to have regained its footing and is even playing with an edge.
Credit soft-spoken junior forward Derek Willis for giving the Wildcats another option that has brought a little more swagger.
Tyler Ulis scored 20 points, Willis added a career-best 18 and Kentucky used an early 20-0 run to blow past outmanned Missouri 88-54 on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats (16-4, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) had it easy in improving to 9-0 against Missouri and winning their third straight overall. Kentucky spotted the Tigers an opening layup by Wes Clark before the big spurt that quickly put the game out of reach, twice stretching its lead to at least 40 points in the second half.
“We are playing desperate now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We are playing with an attitude. Refuse to lose.”
Good shooting was the key again for Kentucky, which made 52 percent from the field after hitting 55 percent against Vanderbilt.
Willis was a big part of the Wildcats’ accuracy, going 6 of 9 from the floor — including 4 for 5 on 3-pointers. He also grabbed 12 rebounds for his second double-double in four games, a major improvement after being on the periphery of Kentucky’s rotation for much of his career.
“I am still building more confidence, but I just want to have a mindset to win,” said the 6-foot-9 Willis, who also had two blocks in 25 minutes.
Willis has 94 points in his past 14 games after totaling 77 in his first 40 with Kentucky.
“Since I put him in the lineup, he is averaging double-digit rebounds and stretching the floor out. He has made us a different team,” Calipari said.
Isaiah Briscoe had 15 points, Skal Labissiere 12 and Jamal Murray 11 to round out Kentucky’s double-figure scorers.
Clark had 11 points for Missouri (8-12, 1-6 SEC), which sustained its second-biggest loss this season. Kevin Puryear and K.J. Walton each added 10.
After last Saturday’s blowout of Vanderbilt, the Wildcats didn’t want to look past a Tigers squad that challenged then-No. 10 Texas A&M for more than a half before falling 66-53. That was never a problem as Kentucky came away with the tuneup it wanted before Saturday’s big test at No. 4 Kansas.
The Wildcats outrebounded Missouri 47-28, including a 32-19 advantage on the defensive glass. They forced 15 turnovers that led to 22 points and held the Tigers to 32 percent shooting.
Kentucky also shot 9 of 20 from 3-point range while limiting Missouri to 4 of 14 from behind the arc.
So much for Missouri’s hope of avoiding another drubbing at Rupp Arena after last year’s 49-point rout. That quest didn’t last long, as the Wildcats quickly answered Clark’s basket with a blistering surge.
“I thought the beginning of the game was the difference,” Missouri coach Kim Anderson said following his team’s fifth straight loss. “They completely dominated it. We had no answer for anybody for a long time.”
HE’S GETTING THERE
One concern in Briscoe’s otherwise impressive freshman season was the guard’s 35 percent average from the foul line, which made Wednesday’s 5-of-6 showing all the more encouraging. Fans cheered louder as he sank his first three, groaned on his lone miss and were loud again on his final two makes. “I wasn’t really expecting that,” Briscoe said of the reaction. “That was great.”
Missouri: Despite the rout, Clark maintained his double-digit scoring average against Kentucky. He averaged 12 points in three previous appearances.
Kentucky: The Wildcats hit nine 3s, their highest total in five games. … Labissiere scored in double figures for the second time in three games. “I’m feeling a lot more comfortable, playing hard,” he said. … Kentucky’s 18 assists tied a season high.
Missouri: Hosts Mississippi State on Saturday.
Kentucky: Plays at No. 4 Kansas on Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.