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Cats learning to battle through adversity

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Thumbnail image for 14_UK_Pikeville_07_BW.JPGDeAndre Liggins knows what it's like to be down  in the dumps.

A year and a half ago, the last time Kentucky played Notre Dame, DeAndre Liggins had just been a part of one of the most disappointing and controversial seasons in Kentucky's men's basketball history. Rumors circled about the future of former coach Billy Gillispie, and DeAndre Liggins even thought his return to UK may not happen.

Fast forward to this year's Notre Dame matchup in the SEC/Big East Invitational in Freedom Hall on Wednesday in Louisville, Ky. The days of Liggins' struggles are a forgotten memory, replaced by last year's rise on the depth chart and Kentucky's run to the Elite Eight.

Now, with UK (5-2) having lost two of three for the first time since Gillispie's final season in 2008-09, it's Liggins who is trying to guide the freshmen through the first collegiate losses of their young careers.

"Everybody's heads are down," Liggins said. "We've got to stay confident and try to stay together."

Just about every piece, minus the veterans left over from the 2008-09 season, don't know what losing is like. What has Liggins said to them about dealing with adversity for the first time?

"Just stay humble and keeping fighting," Liggins said. "That's all I can tell them. Try to play through it and listen to the coach." 

Freshman forward Terrence Jones is one of those guys trying to deal with a figurative punch to the mouth. After a sparkling start to his collegiate career, Jones struggled on the national stage against North Carolina.

The freshman forward from Portland, Ore., finished 3-of-17 from the floor against the lengthy Tar Heels on Saturday and fouled out with three-plus minutes to go. Jones blamed his preparation and mentality for the first poor game as a Wildcat. 

"I've got to prepare myself better," Jones said. "I missed shots I normally make. It's difficult when that happens in such an important game. I have to keep playing. I have to forget about the last shot. I feel I got down on myself missing a lot of shots. You can't do that. I made silly mistakes on defense because of that. I just have to keep playing."

Jones talked to John Calipari about his game. His coach told him he let his teammates down by letting his offensive woes affect the rest of his game.

"He learned a great lesson about preparation; he learned a great lesson," Calipari said. "The thing I keep saying to these guys is, as long as you accept where we are, you can change. If you're not going to accept where we are and what we have to get better at and you have an excuse for everything, you're never going to get better. You can't change it. You can't make adjustments. I think he'll be fine. I think that was one of those games that he learned from. He didn't do a real good job of preparing to play and from the beginning of the game. He was never emotionally connected to the game and there was no sense of urgency the entire game."

The Kentucky players will have little time to digest the early learning lessons with the SEC/Big East Invitational on the slate for Wednesday.

UK's opponent, Notre Dame, has few similarities in relation to the Cats. While youth and inexperience characterize Kentucky, veterans and experience define the Fighting Irish. Five seniors make up the Notre Dame starting lineup, four of which average double figures. The other, Scott Martin, is just a shade under at 9.4 points per game.

Behind the play of forward Tim Abromaitis (15.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and guard Ben Hansbrough (15.8 ppg, 4.0 apg), Notre Dame is off to an 8-0 with wins over Georgia, California and Wisconsin. The victories over the Bulldogs and Badgers included double-digit second-half comebacks.

"They know how to play off one another," Calipari said of Mike Brey's team. "They don't get rattled. They just keep playing. They do what they do well because they're a veteran team. ... To play a senior-oriented team like Notre Dame is going to be a hard challenge. You're talking about five seniors who have been through the wars."

And that's what Calipari's team is still learning how to do. Against North Carolina, it looked at times as if UK should have been blown out of the water. But the Cats battled and nearly stole the game at the end.

The key, now, for UK is learning how win those close games. Calipari said that begins with trust.

"A lot of what we're doing right now is individually and as groups talking about how we have to be, talking about trust, having respect for each other's games, understanding that a month from now is not what we're going to look like," Calipari said. "Figuring out how we're going to play at the end of a game. I talked to them about trust because we have so many young guys, you have to tell them that means when you talk defense, when you talk offense, when you talk a will to win, what does that mean? So I have to explain it to them where you would think they know."

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