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By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky coach John Calipari started a national media tour Monday to promote his new book, “Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out,” and admitted he had no idea how many players would leave UK early for the NBA draft and denied reports that he had any interest in coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know right now,” said Calipari on the Dan Patrick Show when asked how many players might leave UK. “We had great conversations. They all have the information. I am not going to meet with them nine times. This is it. Tell me what you want to do so I can help you.”

He later when on Kentucky Sports Radio and said he called 10 NBA general managers the day after UK lost to Connecticut in the national championship game to gauge where his players might land in the draft. He said he even had one player on the way to the airport in Dallas after the title game he told him he didn’t want to leave UK.

“As I was doing all of the other research, they were throwing his name in, and a couple of them told me he could be a first round pick. So, I had to call him back in and say, ‘I know what you said to me, but you and your mom need to sit down and talk about this because here’s some of the information I’m getting,’” Calipari said.

“If you’re in the first round, you’ve got to go do this, if you’re in the lottery, you’ve got to go do this.” In fact, if a player wants to come back, he has them sit down and explain why, like Patrick Patterson did back in 2009,” Calipari said.

Calipari said he doesn’t see any way all eight players that might consider leaving early would do that. He noted they have until April 27 to make a decision to put their names into the draft and that they are “not hurting” him or UK by waiting to make a decision.

“You obviously know that there’s a couple, they’re going to go, and then there’s three or four that are like ‘what will you guys do?’ At this point? I don’t know. I don’t think all eight will leave. How about that? We finally will have some guys come back. I don’t think eight will go, but five, six, four, I don’t know,” he said.

He also addressed the rumor former Kentucky star Rex Chapman put out a few hours before the national championship game that he had been told it was a “done deal” that Calipari was going to be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Obviously it is not true,” Calipari told Patrick.

He said he was “surprised” that Chapman put that message on Twitter.

“You know, every year I have coached I am going somewhere. That is all part of being the coach at Kentucky but that disappointed me in that unless the Lakers told him, which I know wasn’t done … They had a coach. We had a coach. Getting ready for the championship game. I am not mad at Rex. We are moving on,” Calipari said.

Calipari said the rumor was not a distraction for him or the team because they didn’t know about it until after the game.

Patrick asked if Calipari would one day like to be offered the Lakers job?

“No, I am good We need to get this thing to two years (before a player can leave college for the NBA),” he said.

He said on Kentucky Sports Radio that he had a “great job” where he could impact the lives of players and their families and wanted to keep doing that. However, he told Patrick if players are still able to leave school after one year that it would “be hard” for him to still be coaching in three to five years.

“The option is to recruit players that are not good enough (to leave UK for the NBA after one year) or convince kids that should leave that they should stay,” Calipari told Patrick. “I am not comfortable with that and BBN is not comfortable with the first one (recruiting players not as good). Let’s get to two years because that is good for everyone.”

Calipari said even if he didn’t get the top-ranked players, the 50th rated recruit would still think he could be a one-and-done player.

“If I try to talk them into staying, people are going to say I am doing it for me,” he told Patrick. “I give information to families and they make the decisions. I can’t go at this any other way.”

uk basketball logoBy LARRY VAUGHT

Could Kentucky  lose seven players — five freshmen starters and sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress — to the NBA draft?

As unlikely as that might seem to Kentucky fans, it doesn’t seem that unlikely to some who closely monitor the NBA draft.

Start with ESPN analyst Chad Ford who indicated on ESPN.com Wednesday that UK could lose more than the expected trio of Julius Randle, Cauley-Stein and James Young — all projected first-round picks in every mock draft I have seen.

Ford agreed that Randle and  Young are “for sure gone” and put Cauley-Stein in the same category even though the sophomore explained after the title game that there would be reasons for staying in school — as well as having several millions reasons (dollar-wise) for going to the NBA. He has Randle ranked as the fifth best player with Young 16th and Cauley-Stein 19th

“The Harrison twins have wanted to leave all year according to multiple sources around the twins, but their draft stock made them iffy first rounders. I’m not sure it’s to the point that they are clear first rounders,” Ford said on ESPN.com. “Andrew probably has the most claim, but he’s not a lock. Another year at Kentucky would help.”

Aaron Harrison Sr. told the Houston Chronicle that he had not discussed the NBA with his sons before the title game and that he expected them to discuss the subject this weekend when the twins likely will come home. Harrison Sr. said about a month ago that he was fine with his sons staying at UK if that was their decision.

NBADraft.net has Andrew Harrison going 27th in the first round with Aaron going in the second round with the 35th overall.

Draftexpress.com has Randle going fourth, Cauley-Stein 12th and Young 17th. Draftexpress.com does not have any other Wildcat going in the first or second rounds. CBSSports.com has  Randle, Cauley-Stein and Young in the same slots with Poythress 46th and Aaron Harrison 47th in the second round. CBS has Andrew Harrison as the 61st best prospect — there are 60 spots in the draft.

Most assumed that freshman Dakari Johnson would be back. While he said he had not thought about his draft status after Monday’s national title game loss, he also didn’t want to say he would be back at UK, either.

“Dakari Johnson would be a bubble first rounder as well,” Ford said.

He said he’s also heard rumblings that Poythress could declare, but says he would be on the same first-round bubble as Johnson.

“I think there’s a chance all of them are gone. There are certainly rumblings that direction. But the only three that really make sense right now are Randle, Young and Cauley-Stein,” Ford said.

 Players don’t have long to make a decision. The draft is not until June 26 but players who wanted official NBA input have already had to request that and will receive by Monday. Those not requesting information have until April 27 to enter the draft.

 

 

By LARRY VAUGHT

If you think you were heartbroken when Connecticut beat Kentucky Monday night, wait until you see the reaction this from 4-year-old Kentucky fan.

“My husband and I are originally from Kentucky and have been Wildcat fans all our lives,” said Rachel Calton. “My husband is in the Navy and is currently stationed in Connecticut on the USS Hartford as the Weapons Officer, so obviously we are surrounded by UCONN fans.

“We are making sure we raise our kids to cheer for the best team, though. Our 4-year-old was asleep before tip-off on Monday night, but wore his Kentucky jersey to bed and the first thing he asked me when he woke up Tuesday morning was if Kentucky had won. I knew he was going to be upset by the news, but didn’t expect quite this reaction. Could he be the saddest Kentucky fan?”

If he’s not, I would not want to see the fan who was sadder. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with the young guy. Enjoy this video and thanks Rachel for reminding us all just how early the blue blood starts flowing, especially when he said, “No, it’s not” when his mom told him that UK still finished second.

By LARRY VAUGHT

ARLINGTON — As Julius Randle rode in a golf cart on the way to postgame interviews with teammate James Young, he buried his heads in his hands as the tears flowed down his cheeks. At the same time, members of the Kentucky pep band waiting in the AT&T Stadium hallway gave him a huge ovations.

Kentucky may have lost the national championship game 60-54 to Connecticut Monday night, but the Wildcats won a spot in the their fans’ hearts with their gritty play in March that turned a disappointing season into a near miraculous season.

The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed and given no chance to reach the Final Four when March Madness started. But after falling behind 30-15 in the first half — the fifth straight game they were behind by nine or more points — they came roaring back and actually had chances to take the lead in the second half. But missed 11 of 24 free throws, shooting only 39 percent from the field and giving up 17 points off 13 turnovers was just too much to overcome.

“I can’t believe what these guys got done together. Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “I needed to do a better job for these kids today, because they needed more help in this.

“You could tell early on they were feeling the game. One of the things we tried some stuff, pick‑and‑roll, obviously it didn’t work. We had to play zone.  Tried to get their sweat to dry a little bit, make them less aggressive and it worked and these guys performed. They came back, We tried doing different things, but we didn’t have enough answers for these guys to finish that team. Their guard play was outstanding. But again we had our chances and that’s all you can ask of your basketball team.”

He’s right and that’s why he told his team he was proud of them and to hold their heads high despite the loss.

“We know he meant that and eventually this will be okay, but it hurts right now,” point guard Andrew Harrison, who had eight points, five assists, five rebound, three steals and one blocked shot — he also had four turnovers — said in a much softer voice than normal.

“We had a great run. Nothing went wrong tonight. We could have got blown out, but we came back. We are a team full of competitors, but they just made plays and beat us,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said.

Connecticut did make the big plays this time that Kentucky had in wins over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin. When Aaron Harrison had a chance to hit a key 3-pointer in this game, he missed. When Julius Randle drove inside late needing a basket, it came out. When Kentucky desperately needed a defensive rebound with about two minutes to play, it went to UConn.

Kentucky got just two field goals in the final six minutes after cutting the deficit to 51-49 — a big reason the Cats scored a season-low 54 points.

“We always think we are coming back,” Randle, who had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists against UConn’s sagging defense, said. “This time we just didn’t quite get it done.”

“We just kept our heads up and just kept fighting for each other. And we had a couple chances that we had to bring it back and we just kept fighting,” Young said as he sat at his locker with tears running down his cheeks. “This hurts. We’ll get over it, but it hurts.”

Kentucky athletics director Mitch Barnhart hopes fans will remember the remarkable March journey, and not just the ending. He expects a bit crowd at this afternoon’s welcome home celebration in Rupp Arena for a team that started five teenagers and learned how to play as a team as the season went on.

“I am awful proud of them,” Barnhart said. “I don’t know if you could have four more memorable back-to-back games than we did. Those were four pretty spectacular games and fun to watch. It was really good stuff.

“I probably didn’t see this run coming. Not many probably did. These kids had a lot of talent. People questioned their character and heart. The kids responded the right way with a remarkable run. Don’t lose sight of how special that was because of this 60-54 score. We just came up seven point shorts, but it was still a remarkable run.”

It was and give Kentucky credit for making no excuses. No complaints about officiating. No complaints about Willie Cauley-Stein being out with an injury. No complaints about missed shots.

“They played a great game. They hit big shots. Just take your hat off to them. They played better than we did,” sophomore Alex Poythress said.

Calipari had to plead, push and pull this team much of the season. He said he never lost faith in his team, but he often admitted it had not been an easy year and that he had made as many mistakes as his players. But it was obvious, even in this difficult moment, he was proud of what his team did.

“These kids really fought and tried and what they accomplished, I told them, this was the best group I’ve ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn. I’ve never coached a team this young. Never. Hope I don’t ever again,” Calipari said.

Then he even showed he still had his sense of humor.

“I think all these kids are coming back, so we should be good,” Calipari said.

That’s not going to happen with the NBA big bucks waiting, but it shows that Calipari truly had enjoyed this run.

“We’ve all had so much fun the last month,” Johnson said. “You hate to see it end this way, but what a month it has been. I’ll never forget it.”

Larry and Tina Cox in St. Louis prior to a UK NCAA Tournament game. (photo submitted)

Larry and Tina Cox in St. Louis prior to a UK NCAA Tournament game. (photo submitted)

By TINA COX

This past weekend was one of the best I have ever experienced.  It was a first for me.  I went to my first NCAA tournament as a Kentucky fan. For years I’ve wanted to but I took a “Leap of Faith” and bought tickets for Sundays game, made hotel reservations and my husband and I headed out Friday evening.  Logistics would not allow us to arrive in time for Fridays game.  I knew we would have to listen to the first half of the Kentucky/Kansas State game on the radio. If the CATS were to win we’d  be ready for Sunday, if they lost I’d be on the streets selling some really good tickets.

We watched the second half of the game at Maggie’s Pub surrounded by Wichita State and Kansas fans.  I’m all decked out in my Kentucky gear looking for some fellow CAT fans.  Finally a few wandered in after the game.  I soon learned that when you pass someone with CATS gear on you nod and say, “Go CATS.” Friday night was a success for a few reasons:  the CATS won and I did not argue with any Wichita State fans.  Those if you who know me realize the latter was a huge accomplishment.

As you walk around you know where everyone is from.  School colors dictate your wardrobe.  Wichita State fans were everywhere.  They were showing up by the bus loads and I was daring one of them to say something to me.  My husband was praying no one would.  You don’t talk about the the Wildcats in front of me. I was primed for a heated discussion.

After dining with my favorite sports journalist (Larry Vaught) we headed to Joe Bucks, the hang-out for the fans.  We went to take a seat at the bar and a guy grabbed my arm.  He informed me the CATS were going down.  I informed him they weren’t.  I told him we were used to being at the tournament and they weren’t therefore I would excuse his behavior.  Everyone at his table started laughing.  We ended up spending the rest of the evening together.  We discussed basketball, basketball and more basketball.

We arrived at Scott Trade Center in time to watch Kansas get beat.  Not a bad way to start off the afternoon.  We were lucky to have seats about 25 feet from the basket.  It was a dream come true for me.  Little did I know that I was going to experience a game Kentucky fans would never forget.  I won’t go into details of the game but I will tell you I have never experienced as many emotions in 40 minutes.  At the two minute mark my palms were sweating, handshaking and heart was beating so fast I thought I might pass out.  Visions of the Duke game danced through my head during the final time out.  The three-point attempt went up 25 feet from me and it seemed like it took forever for it to bounce off the rim.  I had tears of joy.  I was a part of something special.  I could not ask for more.

If you are ever afforded the opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament do not pass it up. Next year I will do the same.  Pack up your Kentucky gear and show your pride.  I discovered what swag was when I walked out the arena on Sunday and it felt good!!

Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson celebrate after the NCAA win over Wichita State. (AP photo)

Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson celebrate after the NCAA win over Wichita State. (AP photo)

By RENE CORNETTE

The storyline for the Kentucky and Wichita State game had already written itself. The Shockers had the season the Wildcats themselves had hoped too. Wichita had tore thru their schedule winning every game and locking themselves up a number one seed in the NCAA tourney while Kentucky on the other hand had stumbled along the way. They hadn’t lived up to the hype and almost everyone had written them off. In the words of John Calipari, “They built us up, so they could tear us down.”

Sunday’s matchup was those two words colliding and collide they did. From the moment of the tip off, you felt like you were watching something special. Kentucky and Wichita State were so evenly matched. They traded shots, defensive stops and hustle plays and it was wonderful to watch. You knew these two teams were meant to be there and it felt more like you were watching a National Championship game, instead of game with a Sweet 16 birth on the line. It was magnificent and by the time halftime arrived, you had time to catch your breath and ready yourself for more.

Kentucky silenced the doubters. They took punch after punch from Wichita State and kept fighting back. Andrew and Aaron were so poised and played beyond their years. Randle looked like a man possessed and Willie Cauley – Stein’s play was inspired. It was a team effort and a team they looked like. Kentucky worked as one unit on the court. They played seamlessly together and with a purpose. They went back and forth with Wichita State and it was beautiful to watch. You knew you were witnessing a classic game and the feeling of that hit you to your core. Then you realized one team had to lose and it was a shame.

A shame because for 40 minutes, Wichita State and Kentucky had played a game that went fluidly. It was a good ole fashioned shoot out and in this day and age those are hard to come by. It was a game that wasn’t dictated by refs but by two teams of players who epitomized greatness. Yes, Wichita State ultimately lost but in doing so they still proved they were the real deal and their season wasn’t a fraud. They won the respect of everyone and there’s something in itself very commendable about that.

Kentucky, will march on into March as one, playing their rival Louisville in Indianapolis which is setting itself up to be another classic game. All season, Big Blue Nation kept saying, wait till March, Kentucky will silence the doubters and the Wildcats have done just that. They’ve made believers out of the most cynical and in the process they’ve grown up in front of our eyes. Kentucky is still writing their own story and if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that that story is one with immense potential and dreams of greatness. Dreams that we all get to live out and dream for one more week at least. This is Kentucky basketball and it’s everything we dreamed it could be. See you in, Indianapolis.

By LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA — It was not his highest scoring game at Kentucky, but Friday’s win over LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament might have been Andrew Harrison’s best game at Kentucky.

The freshman point guard took only four shots, but still managed 11 points because he was 7-for-8 at the foul line. He had a career-high eight assists in the 85-67 win along with three rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in a team-high 36 minutes to more than offset his three second-half turnovers.

“He played well.  And the biggest thing, I thought he did a pretty good job defending,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He pushed the ball. That’s how we want him to play. We shared the ball. It wasn’t just Andrew, we all shared the ball.”

Andrew Harrison appreciated Calipari putting the ball in his hands to make plays.

“It felt great,” Harrison, who tied Rajon Rondo for fifth on the single-season assist list at UK with 118, said. “I know I wasn’t playing to my full potential. Inconsistently, I was playing pretty bad. I just wanted to come out here and get the ball to my teammates in the right position.

“We were just all playing as a team.  Our wings were knocking down shots, big shots. If we play as a team and play defense and get stops, it’s pretty hard to beat us.  I think we’re starting to have more fun out there.”

He didn’t want to say it was his best overall game — and even showed a rare sense of humor when asked about that.

“I don’t know. How many points did I have?” Harrison said.

After a brief pause, he laughed and added, “I am just joking. I was just out there. My goal is to be the best point guard in the country. I think I am starting to make strides. I know it is is late, but there can’t be a better time.

“You have to give all the credit to my teammates. I was just finding them for open shots and they were making them tonight. I feel like we were playing a little stressed. Coach tells us we have nothing to be stressed about. We have to keep playing like we did when we first started and have fun.”

The Cats did some of that before the tournament when Calipari allowed them to shred game DVDs — both wins and losses — from the season to show the team had a “clean slate” going into postseason play.

“Coach Just told use we have a new slate and we have eto play. We lost some games that we should not have lost. Not to take away from any teams that beat us, but we did not play as well as we could and I know I did not,” Harrison said.

However, his overall play against LSU could have been the breakout game UK has been needing from him.

“As a point guard and running our team, he was amazing. (This) is what we get when he plays like that and runs our team,” Aaron Harrison, his twin brother, said after he had 14 points and two assists Friday. “But that is how I am used to seeing him playing.”

The point guard didn’t mind taking his second lowest number of shots this season, especially after missing 31 of 47 shots the previous six games.

“I was trying to get my teammates involved at first and just have fun out there,” Harrison said. “Teams usually play me to score now, so I am just trying to help my teammates. We have so much talent on our team at the wing positions with Aaronand James (Young) and the bigs with with Julius (Randle), Dakari (Johnson) and Willie (Cauley-Stein). It is fun to be out there.

“We just ran. We had to fly up and down the court and we did. Coach just told us to push the ball and that’s what I was doing. I was finding teammates.”

He said the Cats just “locked in” on defense against the smaller, quicker LSU guards.

“They made a lot of tough 3’s early and we knew it was pretty much impossible for them to shoot whole game like that. We stuck to our fundamentals. We were just sliding our feet and ready for them,” he said.

Harrison also helped hold the team together when LSU cut UK’s big second half lead to three points.

“Having a will to win. I know it is a cliche, but just refuse to lose. Be ready at all times. They are a great team and you have to take a punch and keep fighting. That’s what we did,” Harrison said.

By LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA — When Kentucky plays LSU in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals tonight, the Cats will be trying not only to keep from hurting their NCAA tournament seeding but also reviving an offense that has not scored more than 67 points in the last four games.

Kentucky has shot just 34 percent (79 of 228) from the field in losses to Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida with a win over Alabama also in the streak.

For the year, UK is still averaging 76.3 points per game, but the mark has been only 64.2 points in the last four games.

Kentucky coach John Calipari promised earlier this week that a “tweak” to the UK offense had players re-energized and would pay dividends tonight. However, looking at various statistics shows why UK has been struggling with consistency and has fallen out of the national rankings.

— In the last nine games, sophomore Alex Poythress has missed 25 of 35 shots and scored 33 points while grabbing 32 rebounds. In the previous nine games to start SEC play, he had 91 points, made 34 of 61 shots and grabbed 44 rebounds.

— In the last four games, James Young is 8-for-23 from 3-point range and 12-for-41 shooting overall. He also has 11 turnovers in those four games.

— In the last four games, Aaron Harrison is 11-for-43 from the field, including 6-for-20 from 3-point range. He has five assists and eight turnovers in the same span.

— Willie Cauley-Stein scored in double figures in UK’s first two SEC games. In the last 16 league games, he’s done it twice. He’s had 10 games with five or less points in the last 16 games. He’s taken just seven shots in 69 minutes in the last three games and pulled off just 13 rebounds.

— Andrew Harrison has missed 32 of 51 shots in the last five games and gone 2-for-9 from 3-point range. He has 19 assists and 10 turnovers in those five games.

Julius Randle, who has received numerous postseason honors, has been the most consistent Wildcat. He has a double-double in seven of his last eight games and has been in double figures in rebounding the last eight games. He was 7-for-11 from the field against Florida in UK’s last game and 4-for-8 against Alabama before that. However, just twice in the last nine games has he got 10 or more shots from the field.

Texas A&M junior Jordan Green has known Randle, who is from Dallas like him, and follows UK because of that. He’s been a bit perplexed at times by what he has seen.

“It is hit or miss with them in some games,” Green said. “I think they will step up and play well now. I think when the bigger lights come on, they will play up to their level even though they have not always done that during the season. They have played against some great teams and have seen the best of the best. It just comes down to whether they want to put it all together now.”

Texas A&M, like most teams, played to neutralize Randle inside and make UK score from the outside. Kentucky won 68-51 despite making just six of 21 3-point shots.

“Their perimeter players are good. Both the twins are pretty big. James Young is pretty big,” Green said. “They shot the ball a lot better than we thought they were going to do. They play well in stretches and compete and really play hard at times. They are going to be great in time. But I just remember they made some shots we didn’t think they would make even though they have amazing talent. You just have to pack it in on their bigs and force them to drive, but against us they knocked down enough shots and had enough defense to really stop us that let them win. But teams are going to keep making them show they can hit shots.”

Earlier this week Young said the Cats spent more time passing, and less driving to the basket, in practice even though no one would confirm that was the secret “tweak” to UK’s offense.

“We shared the ball and had a little more fun on the offensive side just by sharing the ball more,” Cauley-Stein said Tuesday. “It felt normal. It felt like we was back in our groove before we lost the Arkansas game. We kind of had that feel, almost like that swagger was coming back to our team.”

That’s what Calipari wants less than a week before NCAA play starts.

“All I can tell you is there was a different feel in the building (at practice). It was not just the tweaking of what we did. It was the physical play brought something out of them that I wanted to see,” Calipari said. “It changed how they thought from where they were to where I wanted them to be. But this, again, all that we’re doing carried over, and I believe it will. Now, adversity is going to hit and come together and show us what you’re capable of doing together, looking and leaning on one another.”

By LARRY VAUGHT

When the final horn sounded, there was Julius Randle racing into the corner to celebrate and suddenly teammate Andrew Harrison was leaping on his back with a near choke hold.

But it was all good for the two Wildcats after No. 18 Kentucky somehow managed to overcome its own sloppy play at times to beat LSU 77-76 in overtime on Randle’s follow basket with 3.9 seconds to play Saturday.

It was perhaps the most jubilant moment of the season for the Wildcats — who came close to letting any chance of maintaining a high NCAA Tournament seed slip away with what would have been a crushing home loss this late in the season.

“It was really fun to win a game that way,” said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 21 points, including 7-for-7 at the foul line. “I think this could bring us closer together. It will help us get closer because we just had to fight to get this win.

“We all enjoyed this. We were all happy for Julius. We just all want to win in spite of what some people might think.”

Kentucky had to survive a potential game-winning shot in regulation from Anthony Hickey, a Kentucky native who led LSU with 20 points and eight assists. Then the Cats needed Randle to go to war inside to rebound James Young’s miss and put in the follow shot — and then rejoice when LSU turned the ball over without getting a shot that could have won the game.

Randle joked that Andrew Harrison was “choking” him during the celebration, something that didn’t bother the UK freshman point guard.

“That was cool. He’s a big, strong dude. He’ll be okay,” Andrew Harrison said.

Maybe UK will be, too. There was James Young celebrating with teammates after the win and showing emotion he’s not displayed on the court all season. And he also didn’t shy away from inside contact when he drove inside LSU’s sagging zone on Randle. He was 5-for-9 at the foul line but had 20 points, four rebounds and one steal.

“I thought he did good stuff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Again, here he is, he’s 1-for-4 from the 3. I’d like him to make a few more foul shots. If he goes 7-for-9 from the line … you’re the best shooter in the gym. How can you go 5-for-9?”

Young (17), Aaron Harrison (15) and Andrew Harrison (13) took 45 of Kentucky’s 67 shots, mostly on drives inside the lane. While Young and Aaron Harrison, both made seven, Andrew Harrison made just three and missed four straight shots late in regulation and to open overtime.

Credit LSU for doing all it could to keep the ball away from Randle, who was just 3-for-8 from the field but got the rebound and follow basket that he needed the most simply by refusing to give up on the play.

But Calipari said he continued to tell his players to drive, especially after LSU center Johnny O’Bryant got four fouls and was not contesting shots. He even yelled at Andrew Harrison once for taking an open 15-foot shot rather than going inside.

“We cleared out the court, spaced it out, said, ‘Forget about the offense, pass it twice and drive.’ That’s what we were doing.”

Kentucky won despite giving up a first-half lead and going just 1-for-9 from 3-point range. But UK hit 20 of 26 free throws and got 24 second-chance points, including the game-winning basket from Randle, to beat a team that physically manhandled UK earlier this season.

“You’re not going to play great every night,” Calipari said. “We missed a bunch of shots. We missed every 3. The game is never over until the horn sounds. That’s what I just kept telling them. Just play. But that’s an NCAA Tournament game there. That’s what it’s going to be like, that kind of game.”

Well, maybe not because at 16-10, 7-7 in SEC play, there’s no guarantee that LSU will even be a NCAA tourney team even if it has played like one twice against Kentucky.

Still, Calipari is not going to rock the boat, not this late in the season. He wasn’t going to overly complain about the lack of intensity and smart decision-making at times in the second half. He wants to focus on the positives and the win as he team tries to peak for March Madness.

He’s gone so far as to even have each player on the bench assigned a player on the court to talk to about energy. No kidding. That’s what he admitted after the game.

“We’re doing everything we can to get these guys to think different than they have ever thought in their life,” Calipari said. “No one’s ever attempted to do what we’re doing ow. All freshmen. All McDonald’s All-Americans. Bring them together, win a national title. Brought in a few players, but never tried this.

“I’m having to do stuff I’ve never done before. I had them take out the table in my office. I got a couch in there now.”

Again, that’s Calipari the master psychologist — and the same coach who complained about others “over analyzing” his team. But he’s right. This team can go from dominating to frustrating to jubilant in the same game.

But apparently the players are listening.

“Worried? Definitely. Coach was saying that we are not losing. When somebody says something like that, you have to believe it,” Andrew Harrison said.

Thanks to Randle, now they’ll likely believe any more after escaping with a win that maybe no one but Calipari believed they were going to get.

By Keith Taylor, The Winchester Sun

LEXINGTON — During a film session Monday night, Willie Cauley-Stein wasn’t happy with the way he was playing defense. He knew it was time to get the swagger back.

“I had to get my timing back on my blocked shots and everything else,” he said. “I had to get that confidence back on defense and everything else would turn out for itself.”

Cauley-Stein led Kentucky’s block party against Ole Miss, swatting six of the Wildcats’ season-high 12 blocked shots in an 80-64 win over the Rebels Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.

The sophomore center not only hampered the Ole Miss offense in the paint, but he also had a hand in Kentucky’s offensive production, scoring a season-high 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season. Cauley-Stein added two assists and a steal to his stat line in one of his most impressive performances of the season.

He was outstanding tonight,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “He obviously has a real big reputation coming in. He’s most certainly a very capable player and tonight his length was bothersome. Six blocks, he finished everything every thing at the basket, even when we would come up with somewhat of a stop, he was always there to get the loose ball. He did a great job of finishing for contact.”

Mired in a slump for most of January, Cauley-Stein started February with a bang and is spending less time critiquing his own performances. It worked against the Rebels.

“I’ve been over analyzing,” he said. “Since I got here, I’ve been over analyzing. It’s something that I just put behind me. I know how good I can be and it’s just work. Once I get the confidence to do the stuff I’m capable of doing, that’s when I’m not going to be over analyzing.”

In Kentucky’s 84-79 win at Missouri last weekend, Cauley-Stein watched as the Tigers pieced together a comeback down the stretch, only to come up short. The Wildcats proved they could win without his length in the paint, but Kentucky coach John Calipari knows the Wildcats need his shot-blocking abilities in the post to give the defense a boost.

“You think of our team last year, we were a pretty good defensive team until he got hurt,” the Kentucky coach said. “Wow, we’re not the same team. So the last game (at Missouri), all those right drives, who was not in the game? Willie. So you get confident just driving and I can shoot layups, so then you shoot them.

“It was a little different today. We end up with 12 blocks because they just thought they could drive it, and that’s what he does. He had great defensive confidence. And there is such a thing as defensive confidence. He didn’t have that at Missouri. He left early — he was antsy. He left his feet on 6-foot guys and fouled. But today he had it.”

Although his past trials are behind him, Cauley-Stein said he’s still figuring out his game.

“I know how good I can be on defense,” he said. “I’m still young and figuring out myself. Once it starts to click, I think it will be all right.”

In addition, he’s also tuning the outside noise out and staying focused on the task at hand.

“What the people are saying, you have to throw it out,” he said. “You just have to prove them wrong. That’s what (Calipari) keeps on saying. We’ve got to work even harder so that you prove them wrong. Then they can’t do anything about it. You’ve got to stay the course.

“You can’t really feed into what the media says or what people are talking (about). You’ve just got to stay stay the course and keep practicing like we have all along and taking care of what you’re doing, outside of getting extra work in. Eventually you’ll come out of it. You can’t do all that stuff and not have good stuff happen back. You’ve really just got to stay the course.”

Cauley-Stein said the Wildcats will continue to work on their defense going into back-to-back road games at Mississippi State and Auburn.

“That’s going to continue to be our emphasis if we want a chance to make it the NCAA,” he said. “We need to have a defensive presence to where we’re capable of stopping someone every single time. Once we get that, we’ll be really good.”

The Wildcats took a step forward on defense against the Rebels.

***

Keith Taylor can be reached on twitter @keithtaylor21

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