For a brief moment, Belmont's Cameron Newbauer thought he might have been coaching in Rupp Arena instead of Memorial Coliseum.
"I thought you guys were starting to be like the men. Blue and White or something," Newbauer said, referencing John Calipari's platoon system. "I looked at the bench and I said, 'Have he and Cal been hanging out?' "
Mitchell and Calipari do speak often, but that wasn't the reason for UK's line-change substitution so early in Sunday's game. Mitchell was simply unwilling to accept what he was seeing from his team.
"That was not my plan at the start of the game," Mitchell said. "I just was very disappointed with how our first unit came out and played."
And so in came the second unit in a game tied at the time, 3-3. The effort the second wave of Wildcats gave wasn't perfect, but it was enough to propel No. 8 UK (10-1) to a 71-55 win over Belmont (2-7). In fact, it was one player - Azia Bishop - who largely responsible for the improved energy.
Bishop, coming off the bench for the second game in a row after making eight starts to begin the season, did it all for UK. She had season highs in points (15), rebounds (12), blocks (four) and steals (three).
"Before the game, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou told me I just needed to come in and work ahead and attack the board and just give it my all," Bishop said. "I think doing that, it produced what I had today."
Returning to the reserve role she filled in her first three seasons in Lexington may have had something to do with it too.
"If you think about, she's done it for three years, come off the bench," Mitchell said. "We just need production from her and I loved her fight today. I thought she had some really great moments of fight. And really there for the first portion of the game, at the time she was the only one."
"Starting, it really doesn't affect me like that, but just coming off the bench is more comfortable for me just because I get to see the flow of the game and know what I have to come in and do," Bishop said. "And I think that's given me the extra push and the extra oomph to go out there and play harder."
Bishop's numbers, in Mitchell's mind, were great, but it's her effort that matters most. That effort shows up in three areas.
The first, says Mitchell, is on the offensive glass. On Sunday, Bishop tied for the team high with five offensive rebounds.
The next is on defense, where Mitchell says Bishop must be focused and in a stance for her and her team to be at their best. She was against Belmont, and those seven combined blocks and steals prove it.
Last, Mitchell wants Bishop running the floor. Her speed has the ability to change the game by creating transition opportunities and, just as importantly, affecting the opponent. Bishop sprinted constantly against the Bruins, helping the Cats turn a three-point lead with less than 15 minutes left into a 16-point win.
"I thought Belmont did a great job, but you saw it started to wear them down," Mitchell said.
Whether Bishop continues to come off the bench or returns to the starting lineup, she's going to need to duplicate that going forward. Over the next month, UK will face bruising frontcourts against the likes of No. 13 Duke and top-ranked South Carolina.
The Cats won't be outmuscling those teams, but they can outrun them with Bishop pacing them.
"We can't just go toe to toe," Mitchell said. "We've gotta get the thing going up and down and that one for Azia, just running the floor and making people run back and making people expend energy to get back and guard us, it's very important."
But for all the talent Coach Cal has had in five-plus seasons at Kentucky, he's never had a player who inspired a name-based adverb as Willie Cauley-Stein did with his performance against North Carolina.
"Willie Cauley was really--he was Willie good today," Calipari said.
Cauley-Stein, for the second time in as many top-25 matchups for Kentucky in the last eight days, was the best player on the floor as the top-ranked Wildcats (11-0) took down the No. 18 Tar Heels, 84-70.
"I was just playing," said Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
That might be what makes Cauley-Stein so scary, that it didn't take any sort of extraordinary effort to do what he did in his 28 minutes.
As always, he ran the floor and created opportunities for himself and his teammates with his rare blend of size and speed. He of course threw down a few of his patented lobs, soaring higher than he had seemingly any business doing. Per usual, he was a defensive terror, short-circuiting North Carolina opportunities with his ability to guard every position, athleticism and quick hands.
"To be 7-foot and run like that and be able to jump like that is incredible," said Devin Booker, who tied Cauley-Stein with a team-high 15 points, including three made 3-pointers.
It's when those things collide that it becomes clear exactly how good Cauley-Stein has become as a junior. One 37-second stretch late in the second half perhaps best illustrates that fact.
UK was leading by a relatively comfortable 12-point margin with 5:19 left, but the Tar Heels were still within shouting distance with preseason All-American Marcus Paige burying 3s left and right. Cauley-Stein, however, put an end to any designs the Tar Heels may have had on a comeback.
First, he rose and dunked a lob from Trey Lyles that seemed destined to go out of bounds. Moments later, he flew down the court as Lyles snared a defensive rebound, received a pass and threw down an emphatic one-handed slam for one of Tyler Ulis' eight assists. To finish it off, he got around his man in the post, deflected a J.P. Tokoto pass, dove on the floor to complete the steal and called timeout.
In the course of three possessions, Cauley-Stein sent a sellout Rupp Arena crowd of 24,406 into a frenzy, demoralized Carolina and all but sealed UK's 11th straight double-digit win to start the season, only the second time in school history and first since 1946-47 such a start has happened.
"He affects the game in every way," UNC's Roy Williams said. "He blocks shots, gets steals, gets follow-dunks, and gets dunks from guard penetration throwing it up around the rim, he goes and gets it, but he is a complete player. If you look at it, he affected the game drastically and only took nine shots."
Cauley-Stein's do-it-all effort came in UK's first game without Alex Poythress, whose season ended Thursday due to a torn ACL suffered in practice. Poythress is his best friend on the team, but Cauley-Stein had to put his classmate, suite mate and former roommate's pain out of his mind.
"At the end of the day you just have to clear it out," Cauley-Stein said. "Once you step in between the lines you can't be thinking about anything else but the game plan and what you have to do for the team to win."
But whenever Cauley-Stein came to the bench, his first move was to give a handshake or hug to Poythress, who attended Saturday's game on crutches. Poythress began the game sitting at the table along the baseline, but couldn't stay away from his teammates and moved to the bench to be with them.
"It was just big he got to come out," Cauley-Stein said. "I didn't know if he'd be able to come out. The fact that he got out of bed and came to support us is big to us. It's good that he's still smiling and likes to be with us. That's the most important part about it."
Cauley-Stein, even in dealing with an injury to his teammate, is showing maturity and perspective he hasn't always had. With that, he's beginning to come close to fully realizing his otherworldly potential.
"Knowing that there's a role I have on the team," Cauley-Stein said. "Last year I didn't really need to have a role. Just roam around and block shots. This year it's clear I have a role I have to uphold. That type of leadership role, too, is big to me. Having that is really what's keeping me going."
More concerned about his team than himself, Cauley-Stein is flourishing.
"You're talking about a junior, you're talking about a guy that's played against some of the best players in the country, and he's a veteran, he's coming into his own, he's figuring out who he is as a person, as a player," Calipari said. "He's doing it."
The numbers prove it.
Over his last five games, Cauley-Stein is averaging 13.6 points on 59.1-percent shooting. To go with that, he's grabbing 7.8 rebounds, snagging 2.6 steals and blocking 1.6 shots, all while garnering praise from NBA Draft experts as a potential high-lottery selection.
Even so, he sees bigger things in his future.
"I feel like I haven't even begun to peak," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm just climbing. Like, if I want to, I could do something that's really never been done in history, and that's the way I look at it. If I really want to be the best player in the country, all I have to do is work at it."
The 6-foot-2 freshman had already scored four straight points for Kentucky by then and she didn't hesitate when she received the pass from Makayla Epps.
Watching Jennings set up to take the shot, Jennifer O'Neill, concerned over how Matthew Mitchell might react if it didn't go in, wasn't so sure.
"I'm glad she hit it because if she didn't he wouldn't have been too happy," O'Neill said, laughing.
Jennings, however, would calmly sink the shot. And as it turns out, Mitchell couldn't have been happier with the development.
"I was so happy that 3 went in because I'm hoping that gives her some confidence," Mitchell said.
Jennings would follow the 3 with two more made free throws, meaning she closed the first half on a personal 9-1 run. Thanks to her, UK turned a tenuous seven-point lead on visiting Middle Tennessee into a comfortable 41-26 margin heading into the halftime locker room on the way to a 78-62 win. The No. 8 Wildcats won their fifth straight game to move to 9-1 on the season.
"I'm proud of our players and we just need to stay humble and hungry and keep getting better," said Mitchell, who won his 100th career game in Memorial Coliseum on Friday night. "This was a great win for us tonight."
No player showed more improvement than Jennings. Coming in, the Madison, Ala., native had scored just 14 points after a 10-point performance in her college debut. But against the Blue Raiders, she scored a career-high 11.
"It's been real rough for me right now about being in the post and finishing all my moves," Jennings said, "but tonight I just focused and I just played really hard and everything that we did in practice just came together and I was able to contribute today."
She contributed in more ways than just scoring too.
Jennings checked in at the 12:20 mark of the first half, at which point UK led just 16-14. She would play all but two minutes to close the half, grabbing six rebounds and three on the offensive end.
"I was so pleased because it was a very close game and I thought her energy on the offensive glass really kind of started a big spurt for us that we were able to get distance in between us and Middle Tennessee State," Mitchell said. "Very good half for Alexis. We just need to keep plugging and working and she has to keep a great attitude and keep getting better. But she can help us."
Jennings came to Kentucky a highly touted post prospect and has shown glimpses of her potential, but never quite so much as Friday night.
"Well, that's what I think she can be," Mitchell said. "I think she can be that kind of player. She's practicing OK; we just need to keep working with her. But she showed you tonight some things that she can do."
Jennings chalked up her big night to improved self-belief she brought to the game. After it paid off - and she buried the second 3-pointer or her college career - that only figures to grow.
"I just played," Jennings said. "I had confidence tonight and I think that's what carried over into my play today."
Speaking in measured tones, the normally colorful 7-foot junior struggled to come to grips with the torn ACL his suite mate, former roommate and best friend on the team, Alex Poythress, had suffered less than 24 hours prior.
It just didn't seem fair.
"I mean, he's just that older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the good brother that's always doing the right stuff, got his grades right, and like it's just crazy. Like why's this got to happen to a dude who just does everything right and definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like this?"
Even right after it happened, it didn't quite seem real.
Scrimmaging during a normal Thursday practice, Poythress -- averaging 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20.3 minutes per game this season -- raced ahead for an open layup, but landed awkwardly on his left leg. He screamed in pain, but walked reasonably well and experienced less swelling than normal for a serious knee injury. An MRI, however, revealed the damage and John Calipari summoned the Wildcats for a late-night team meeting.
"Guys cried," Calipari said.
"It was honestly like somebody in your family died," Cauley-Stein said.
Poythress, though his season is over, is very much alive. Maintaining perspective is difficult so soon after news so devastating, but it's necessary.
"When I saw Alex last night, I said to him exactly what I said to Nerlens (Noel): 'You're fine. If this is something crazy, you have insurance and you're a millionaire,' " Calipari said on CoachCal.com. "You have even more time than Nerlens had to prepare yourself for the draft if that's what you choose to do. You can also come back. You're going to have your degree in May and you can start on a master's degree for your last year.' Alex is nearly a straight-A student and one of the greatest kids that I've ever coached."
Cauley-Stein, broken up as he was about the news, understands that perspective better than most.
Just last March, an ankle injury ended Cauley-Stein's season in the Sweet 16, relegating him to the sidelines as UK made its incredible run to the national championship game.
"I know for me, I understand how he's feeling, like you get hurt like that it feels like everything's just coming down on you, especially in basketball (where) you've got stuff you're trying to accomplish here, not only me and him together, but us as a whole team," Cauley-Stein said. "Just to have that kind of just end and not knowing what's going to come next is the worst part."
Through that uncertainty, the Cats will be offering any support their fallen teammate needs, whether that's in the form of space to spend time with family, watching TV together, playing video games or whatever else.
"I'm just being here for him, stepping in, (seeing) if he's good, do you need anything, and then kind of just letting him chill," Cauley-Stein said. "A lot of it, you do want to be alone at first, and then once you start feeling really good where you can start moving again, that's when you want people around you."
At this point, it's unknown whether Poythress will be in attendance when No. 1 UK (10-0) faces No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) in a game that has taken somewhat of a backseat. The show, as they say, must go on, as difficult as that may be.
"I mean, this is all part of it," Calipari said. "Things happen that you have to deal with and you have to respond to. Next man up and all that, and it's all great coach speak. The reality of it is the fear and the anxiety and all the other stuff that Alex has and we have for him, it's just it zaps you."
How UK will respond emotionally less than 48 hours after Poythress' injury is an unknown, and that doesn't even capture Poythress' impact on the court.
"Nobody can make the plays that he makes," Cauley-Stein said. "He's a freak athlete. (He) does special things you can't replace. So now we've just got to figure out how to play differently. That's going to be the biggest thing is how we're going play now, what lineups are we going to use if we still use the platoon system, and if we do, just make it work."
Speculation, as Cauley-Stein suggested, has immediately shifted to whether Calipari will stick to the platoon system. Could he simply plug Derek Willis into Poythress' spot on the first platoon with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker likely to return to the rotation after practicing Thursday? Will he keep the platoons but mix them up? Might he abandon them altogether?
Since his primary focus to this point has been the mental state of Poythress and the team at large, Coach Cal simply doesn't know yet.
"We'll figure some stuff out in practice," Calipari said. "See what we look at. We're just practicing and I'll watch and I'll get a feel for it. I also don't want to throw guys to the wolves. I don't want to do that to them. That's not fair. But we'll figure that out."
There's only so much of that can be done in practice.
"Some of this is going to be just throwing -- at some point, 'All right, let's try this lineup, see how they work,' " Calipari said. "I've got to be willing to do it. There's going to be some ups and downs. We'll probably get dinged some. I hope not Saturday, but it could be Saturday."
It could be Saturday because the Tar Heels come to town playing good basketball. With preseason All-American Marcus Paige leading the way, Coach Cal expects North Carolina to present a major challenge.
"This is going to be a terrific basketball game," Calipari said. "They should be 8-0. The game they lost to Butler, they had every chance to win it. And the game they lost to Iowa, they had the game and Iowa made a couple plays down the stretch and beat them. But, they easily could be 8-0. This could be again another top-10 team we're playing with a different bounce of the ball."
Once the ball begins bouncing on Saturday, the Cats will try to put aside everything they've dealt with in the previous two days.
Well, almost everything. They're not about to forget their brother.
"It's just play," Cauley-Stein said. "Play hard. Everything else will--the Xs and Os will take care of itself. Everybody's just gotta play hard and play for him. For the rest of the time, that's what the motive is now. We're trying to do this with him and still have him a part of it."