LEXINGTON, Ky. – Nights like Sunday, when the Wildcats would’ve been lost without him, are exactly what sophomore Isaiah Briscoe imagined when he pulled out of the NBA draft this spring and returned to lead a young Kentucky basketball team.
“Isaiah was the man,” coach John Calipari said after Briscoe dropped a career-high 21 points in a 93-69 win over Canisius that was much closer than that for far too long. “What he did was he just willed us when we were dying.”
With three freshmen who couldn’t buy a bucket starting alongside Briscoe, Kentucky trailed 9-2 early and then 29-23 with 5:44 to go in the first half. The Wildcats needed someone to carry them, and that’s a role Briscoe waited a year to play.
The former McDonald’s All-American was often overshadowed by the heroics of Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray last season, but now it’s his turn to take charge. He’s led Kentucky (2-0) in scoring each of the first two games of 2016-17, scoring 38 total points on 62.5 percent shooting.
“That was the whole point of me coming back: just trying to lead these young guys,” Briscoe said. “I enjoy it, because I’m helping others get better. And me and Coach’s relationship, that makes our relationship better. He likes to do less talking. If I’m talking, he doesn’t have to do as much. Coming from me, I think they get the message better.”
That’s why those freshmen, who combined to hit just 2 of 17 shots to start the game, heard Briscoe’s voice as much as – maybe more than – Calipari’s during every early timeout as Kentucky tried to stop the bleeding against a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team known as the Golden Griffins. Kentucky’s coach said Briscoe is “twice as good as he was a year ago” and the only player with the toughness to win at a high level right now.
“They’ll learn sooner or later,” said Briscoe, who hopes it’s the former with Tuesday’s game against Michigan State looming. “It was good that we were down in the first half to let them get used to stuff like that. I just kept telling the guys, ‘We’re fine. Teams are going to make their runs. Just keep calm. Everything will come back to reality within, like, 10 or 12 minutes.’ ”
And he was right. Thanks to Briscoe’s ability to drive and score at will, he hit 8 of 9 shots to start the game and steadied the shaky Wildcats. He knew after the first too-easy layup Sunday that Kentucky’s guards could have their way if they simply attacked.
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He told freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, “Yo, the court’s wide open,” he said. “If I feel like the guy in front of me can’t stay in front of me, I’m going to try to score. That’s what Coach likes. He likes ballers.”
Fox and Monk eventually heeded Briscoe’s advice and, after starting a combined 2 of 11 shooting, hit 9 of 13 to finish the game. They scored 35 points between them and the Wildcats pulled comfortably away from Canisius.
“He helped us a lot,” Fox said. “We have yet to face that adversity since we’ve been here, and he had that a few times last year, so he knows what he’s doing. We all just listened to what he was saying. He led vocally and he led by example, so we just followed his act.”
Briscoe had one move, though, that few could mimic. As Kentucky stretched out its second-half lead, he tried to lose a defender with a crossover dribble going left but got cut off. So he spun back hard to the right, losing one man and banking in a shot over another.
In a moment Briscoe dreamed of last year, his teammates went wild on the bench.
“I saw the replay and I saw them all get up,” Briscoe said. “That’s what it’s all about: those guys cheering me on. That’s pretty cool.”