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By Nick Nicholas
BROOKLYN – Willie Cauley-Stein arose on both ends of the Barclays Center floor Sundaynight to lead No. 3 Kentucky over Providence 79-65.
The 7-foot forward scored 15 points in 36 minutes of work, but more impressively accounted for eight rebounds and a career-high nine blocked shots against the Friars. Cauley-Stein made seven of eight shots, committed only one turnover and handed out an assist.
“The last couple of games have been pretty good,’’ said Cauley-Stein, who scored 15 points and had seven blocked shots during Wednesday’s 81-63 victory over Eastern Michigan. “I’m more aware (on the defensive end). Before in the past I was hesitant on going (for the block).’’
Added Kentucky coach John Calipari: “To have nine blocks in a game like this is big time. I’m proud of him. He’s come a long way. He’s playing harder longer. He’s never played this many minutes. We made a step up today.”
Kentucky improves to 7-1 and faces Baylor Friday night at 9 p.m. (ESPN) in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge contest at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“Credit Kentucky, they really got on the glass,’’ said Friars head coach Ed Cooley, whose team was out-rebounded 35-30. “I like their team. They are young and you can see they are growing every game. Their strength is their length.”
UK benefited from a balanced offensive attack with four players in double figures. Besides Cauley-Stein’s high-energy performance, James Young poured in a team-high 18 points followed by Aaron Harrison with 15 and Julius Randle with 12 points. Randle grabbed eight rebounds, ending his double-double string of seven games.
Providence’s 6-foot-1 senior guard Bryce Cotton kept the Friars (7-2) close. Cotton hit on five of nine three-pointers on his way to a game-high 23-point effort.
Cotton hit on 4-of-9 attempts in the first half, but finished the game hitting on 7-of-21.
Calipari credited Aaron Harrison’s defense on Cotton.
“Aaron Harrison changed the game,’’ Calipari said. “He wanted to guard him.’’
Overall, the Friars gave UK fits by making 10 of 19 three-pointers, but the Wildcats were just as deadly with less attempts, making six of eight three-pointers.
Moreover, the Wildcats shot 27 of 42 from the field for a sizzling 64.3 percent. In the second half, they made 11 of 16 from the field for 68.8 percent.
“(Coach Calipari) said to pick it up a little more in the second half,’’ Young said. “We didn’t have that fire (in the first half).’’
Kentucky jumped out to a 6-0 advantage and never relinquished the lead. Providence did close the gap, 39-38 following a Bryce Cotton three-pointer. Led by Cauley-Stein (six first-half points, four blocks), Young (9 points) and Andrew Harrison (11 points) the Wildcats enjoyed a 39-35 lead at halftime.
An 8-2 UK start in the second half was highlighted by two consecutive blocks by Cauley-Stein that started a Wildcat fast break. Young zipped a pass to Aaron Harrison who found Cauley Stein driving to the basket. The ball never touched the floor during the sequence until Cauley-Stein’s dunk caromed off the floor.
“I was extremely hyped and that was a good feeling,’’ Cauley-Stein said about the play. “When we pick it up on defense it gives us an extra energy boost.’’
Providence’s Cooley signaled a timeout much to the delight of most of the 8,086 in attendance. The Wildcats continued to build on the lead for the remaining 16:39 as Cauley-Stein dominated on both ends of the floor.
What has been a problem turned into a positive Sunday night. Kentucky made 19 of 25 free throws for 76.0 percent.
Providence started the game having difficulty finding its aim.
Kentucky jumped out to a 16-6 lead thanks to a nice drive by Aaron Harrison.
But midway through the first half the Friars began to gain confidence against the No.3-ranked team in the country.
The Wildcats ended the first half 16 of 26 shots from the field for 61.5 percent, compared to Providence’s 11 of 33 shooting for 33.3 percent.