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Cauley-Stein's defense steadies Cats in EMU win

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Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks in an 81-63 UK win on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks in an 81-63 UK win on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
From Anthony Davis to Nerlens Noel, Kentucky has had more than its share of remarkable shot-blocking efforts in recent seasons.

You can add another to the list.

Willie Cauley-Stein tied a career with seven blocks, anchoring the UK defense against Eastern Michigan.

Cauley-Stein had five of his blocks after halftime, helping to turn a three-point lead into an 81-63 win -- UK's 500th in Rupp Arena -- in the finale of the Keightley Classic in Rupp Arena on Wednesday. The sophomore -- at least based on his play -- seemed intent to carry his (only slightly) younger teammates, but he said postgame his motivation was primarily internal.

"I was just kind of mad because the first half, I missed some bunnies and I wasn't really rebounding that much and Coach was getting after me for not blocking some shots," Cauley-Stein said. "So then I just decided I'm going after everything."

Whether it was intentional or not, Cauley-Stein's play did serve as an inspiration.

"It doesn't really surprise me anymore," said Julius Randle, who did the bulk of his damage after halftime in posting his seventh straight double-double. "Just seeing how active he is and how much energy he has on the floor, I kind of feed of it too. It's just something that we expect from him every game."

Cauley-Stein's solid play extended well beyond shot-blocking, as he posted 15 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a steal to go with all those swats. His coach, however, still knows he has areas to improve.

"Willie is playing well," Calipari said. "He still faded away on a couple shots that he didn't need to."

Calipari isn't talking about the free-throw line, where he says Cauley-Stein has built confidence after shooting just 37.2 percent as a freshman.

"I mean, eventually I just in my mind was like, 'If I make it I make it. If I miss it I miss. The game's gonna go on,' " Cauley-Stein said. "And that's kind of how I've been playing now and it's working out. I'm going to keep on playing like that."

It didn't necessarily show in the box score -- Cauley-Stein hit 3-of-7 free throws against EMU -- but the new mentality has completely changed his game.

"That makes a big difference in how you play because now you'll be aggressive and try and score because you're not afraid to get fouled," Calipari said.

Over the last four games, that effort has come off the bench with Marcus Lee inserted into the starting lineup to win the opening tip. That streak was set to end on Wednesday, but a pregame miscommunication undid those plans.

"He was going to start today. John Robic screwed with that," Calipari said, smiling.

Cauley-Stein was aware of the confusion, but doesn't much care whether or not he starts. That makes sense, because he's played no fewer than 24 minutes in any of the games in which he's come off the bench.

"I've been playing good off the bench, but just either way," Cauley-Stein said. "It doesn't really bother me if I don't. If I do, hooray. If I don't, I come off the bench."

Cauley-Stein is averaging 11.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in a reserve role. But make no mistake: That will end on Sunday when UK takes on Providence in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"Willie, he was going to start today," Calipari said. "He'll start from here."

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