Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 84-67 win over Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
From the opening moments, you could sense Andrew Harrison was about to have a big game.
The way he dribbled screamed confidence. The way he was attacking, he seemed certain no one would stop him.
Not surprisingly, his coach took notice too.
"It's a spirit," John Calipari said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play."
No one felt it more acutely than the Arkansas players who had the unfortunate task of trying to shadow him on Saturday.
Harrison was in control from tip to buzzer as top-ranked Kentucky (29-0, 16-0 Southeastern Conference) led by as many as 31 in a victory over No. 18/16 Arkansas (23-6, 13-5 SEC) more dominant than the final score of 84-67 suggests. He had 18 points, three rebounds and three assists as UK clinched its 46th SEC regular-season title outright and moved to within two wins of a perfect regular season.
"I felt like I could get into the lane and find my teammates and score if they give me that," said Harrison, who made 2-of-4 3-point tries and 8 of 8 at the line. "I was just taking things given to me today."
Harrison also gave very little back.
The sophomore point guard committed just two turnovers in steadying UK against Arkansas' patented pressure. The Wildcats had nine turnovers as a team in 70 possessions, putting their turnover percentage at .129, well below the 22.9 percent Razorback opponents are averaging on the season.
By contrast, Harrison committed eight of UK's 35 turnovers in a pair of losses to Arkansas during his freshman season.
"We just remember last year," Harrison said. "We lost to them twice and didn't want that to happen again. We knew what they were capable of and we worked hard and came out with a win."
Harrison may have gleaned an added edge from the memory of those two losses, but it wasn't as if the spirit Coach Cal noticed in him appeared out of nowhere. In eight February games, Harrison is averaging 10.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game, marked improvements in all three categories compared to his season totals.
"He doesn't stop on the court," Calipari said. "There's nothing. 'I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled.' "
Harrison has shown that kind of attitude in spurts over the course of his two Kentucky seasons, but never more consistently than this recent stretch.
"I had it when I got here," Harrison said. "It's just--you have to be ready to bring it every night. That's what you have to be prepared to do. That comes with maturity and stuff like that, I guess."
Improved conditioning doesn't hurt either.
"It's hard (to play the way Calipari asks me to play)," Harrison said. "You have to be in good shape. Not only do you have to push the ball on offense, but you have to pressure the ball on defense as well."
As much progress as Harrison has made, Calipari still thinks he can reach another level.
"I still want him to get to the rim more," Calipari said. "I thought he had two or three or four other opportunities to drive the ball, which I'm telling his brother the same thing. Don't settle, man. We threw it to him on the wing. It was him and no other defenders except the guy on him. Don't pass it to anybody. Drive the ball. You're 6(-foot-)6, you're a moose. Get the ball by the guy, get in the lane, shoot the layup."
If anyone understands what Coach Cal is asking, it's Tyler Ulis, Harrison's fellow point guard. Ulis also understands what Harrison means to Kentucky when he delivers.
"Andrew's playing great," said Ulis, who had 14 points himself. "When he's aggressive and pushes the ball he's one of the best players, one of the best point guards in the country. When he's doing that he's a great player and I feel like if he understands that and does it all the time then we're just going to be a great team."
When No. 2 South Carolina makes its way to Lexington on March 1, the stakes will be much higher for No. 13 Kentucky than a typical rematch with the toughest opponent on the Wildcats' schedule.
Sunday's game marks the last time seniors Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, and Jelleah Sidney will ever take the floor at Memorial Coliseum. However, because of their accomplishments off the court, as well as on it, head coach Matthew Mitchell believes their legacy will live in UK lore forever.
"The seniors have had a great week, and in my mind, have really solidified their standing in this program, and how they'll be remembered for the job they did this week," Mitchell said. "Not just winning the game (Thursday at Arkansas), but the responsibility that they took on, and the passion that they have for the program, and the insight that they gave me to help coach the team better."
After rattling off three straight wins, the Cats dropped three in a row at the hands of No. 6 Tennessee (in Knoxville), at home versus No. 15 Texas A&M and on the road at Ole Miss. Before Kentucky's latest contest with the Razorbacks, UK's four seniors organized a private meeting with their head coach to discuss the state of the program and the prospect of administering adjustments before the season comes to an end.
"As a coach, you're trying to give your players the ability to grow up and be adults, and do what they need to do and learn," said Mitchell. "You don't want to be such a taskmaster all of the time, but that's what this particular group needed right now. (They were) kind of down in a funk and on a downward spiral."
Mitchell's seniors realized the team was on a negative trajectory, so they made sure their concerns were vocalized.
"They basically said, 'Hey, listen. If you don't step in here and really shake this thing up, and let people know this is a serious deal, I don't think it's going to change,'" Mitchell said. "Nobody was acting up, nobody was acting ugly, nobody was out late at night partying. It was just young kids lacking focus. We need to mature as a basketball team, and I needed to take a greater role of how the structure of the day has unfolded."
It wasn't the content of Tuesday's impromptu meeting that had Mitchell so taken aback with the leadership of his four seniors, but rather the initiative the group showed by calling the meeting in the first place.
"It's not anything earth-shattering," said Mitchell. "I just think it's more powerful. At this point of the season, they could have just said, 'Hey, I'm out the door here in 30 days, and I've had a good run. We've won the SEC, and we've been a championship-caliber program,' and just rolled off into the sunset. But, they care enough to say, 'Hey, Coach, we need a little bit more structure. We need to get focused.' "
Kentucky's top three contributing seniors -- O'Neill, Goss and Bishop -- combined for 34 of UK's 56 points in the Cats' win over the Hogs following Tuesday's consultation. The remarkability of one of the all-time most accomplished senior classes in school history has continued to shine throughout each season over the past four years.
O'Neill came to Kentucky as a consensus top-30 high school prospect and the first McDonald's All-American in program history. After missing her entire sophomore season in 2011-12 with a right foot stress fracture, O'Neill emerged as a full-time starter in 2012-13 and led the Wildcats to a 27-5 (13-3 SEC) record and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As a redshirt junior, O'Neill led Kentucky in scoring off the bench (with 12.6 PPG) en route to being named SEC Co-6th Player of the Year and All-SEC Second Team. This year, the 5-foot-6 Bronx native is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG, and leads the Cats in 3-point field goals by a large margin.
Named the state of Indiana's Miss Basketball in 2011, Goss made her presence known upon her first season in Lexington as a freshman in 2011-12. After starting every game, the 5-foot-10 defensive specialist was named SEC Freshman of the Year on the Wildcats' road to the Elite Eight. S
tarting in 56 of UK's 71 games over the next two seasons, Goss entered 2014-15 as the one of five former McDonald's All-Americans on the Kentucky roster. The Indianapolis native averages 8.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG on the year.
As a freshman, Bishop led the team in blocked shots with 31, good for fifth most by a freshman in school history. As a junior, she recorded a career-high five blocks in one contest, tied for UK's sixth most in one game by any player. At 6-foot-3, the Toledo native is the tallest player on Kentucky's roster. Bishop averages 6.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the season, accounting for 48 blocks in 2014-15.
Unlike her three senior colleagues, Sidney is in only her third season in a Kentucky uniform. The former high school teammate of O'Neill began her collegiate career at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she averaged 11.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in 2011-12.
Appearing in 57 games as a sophomore and junior, Sidney sealed her Wildcat legacy in the 2013 NCAA Tournament with an outstanding defensive effort on eventual No. 2 overall WNBA Draft selection Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. The 6-foot-2 post player averages two points and 3.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game this season.
When Sunday afternoon's monstrous matchup with South Carolina is all said and done, Mitchell will remember his latest group of seniors for much more than baskets and rebounds.
"I'll just remember Tuesday night when they came to my house and let me know what I needed to do," Mitchell said. "They also let me know what the program has meant to them, and you couldn't have tripled my bank account, or bought me a new car, or sent me on a vacation, or anything that would have been worth what Tuesday night was. No matter what happens going forward, what happened in that meeting... that solidified their legacy to me."
Kentucky (20-8, 9-6 SEC) will face South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) March 1 at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gamecocks defeated the Wildcats 68-60 in Columbia, S.C. earlier this season.
"They've accomplished a lot on the court, but what they did on Tuesday night was more valuable than anything they could have ever done," Mitchell said. "They were not only concerned about this season and how we finished, but they were concerned about us going forward and what our young players needed to learn right now so a year from now, they would know what to do and how we needed to be. To me, that summed it up for them. So now we are really motivated to try and finish strong, and I think we are capable of that."
Devin Booker leads Kentucky into a top-25 matchup with Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As much as John Calipari tells them to avoid it, the Wildcats can't help but hear.
They don't seek it out, but they hear the talk about their unbeaten run and pursuit of perfection. They hear how many fans throughout the country want them to lose and how Arkansas, Kentucky's next opponent, could be the team to finally make it happen.
They hear and they respond.
"When we hear that a team is going to challenge us, you know, could beat us, in some aspects we take it personally," Trey Lyles said. "We want to go out there and show those people who said that differently and just go out there and compete."
The top-ranked Cats (28-0, 15-0 Southeastern Conference) can be sure the No. 18/16 Razorbacks (23-5, 12-3 SEC) will do the same on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. Needing a win to prevent Kentucky from clinching the conference regular-season title outright, Arkansas - UK's first ranked opponent in two months - will be ready.
"They will not be in awe of us," associate head coach Kenny Payne said. "They won't be intimidated. They'll come in with some confidence. But we will, too. We'll come in knowing that we're a different team, that we're going to get after them just like they're going to get after us."
Payne felt it necessary to point out UK is a different team because the previous edition of the Cats lost twice to Arkansas a season ago. Kentucky has dropped three straight to the Razorbacks overall, meaning no member of the regular rotation has won a game against Arkansas, a team led by Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, combining to average 32.7 points per game.
"I just think that they have a competitive edge about them," Payne said. "They know that this team has beaten us twice, and they'll go out and compete."
UK's returners haven't been vocal about wanting to even the score against Arkansas, but their younger teammates are pretty sure the feeling is bubbling beneath the surface.
"I think they definitely remember," Lyles said. "They talk about it quite a lot now since the game is coming up, so I think they're going to have a little bit more energy and passion going out there tomorrow night."
Energy and passion will be at a premium against Arkansas, a team known for its up-tempo, high-pressure brand of basketball. The Razorbacks rank 15th nationally in defensive turnover percentage and sixth in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com.
"I think Arkansas is the type of team that creates a lot of turnovers," Payne said. "They play well against us. It will be a great game tomorrow. We have to handle their pressure."
Payne compared Arkansas' pressure to Louisville's, which forced UK to commit a season-high-tying 18 turnovers. The Razorbacks, however, play at a different pace than the Cardinals, though Devin Booker has no reason to think the Cats won't be able to handle it.
"I feel like we can slow it down or we can play fast paced," Booker said. "With so many weapons that we have, we can just adjust to any type of game play. I think it will be a good challenge for us because we haven't really played an up-tempo game like they play in a while."
Most opponents have chosen to attack the deep, talented Wildcats by slowing the pace. UK, to this point, has passed every such test. Arkansas now presents a different kind of challenge.
"What it does is, defensively their style is making you play basketball," Payne said. "So if you think you're going to just catch the basketball, hold the ball, run offense, set offensive plays, it's not happening. They will force you to attack and hopefully teams that handle it have success; teams that don't, they struggle."
Whether Arkansas' style is the way to topple the last unbeaten team in the nation remains to be seen, but the Cats don't mind the chance to toss the shackles of a plodding, half-court game aside.
"I feel like we have good enough players to play basketball, so it'll be a good time," Booker said.