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Cauley-Stein finds form, anchors defense in Georgia win

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Willie Cauley-Stein had eight points, six blocks and six steals in UK's win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein had eight points, six blocks and six steals in UK's win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A few times a season, John Calipari comes up with a catchphrase you know you'll hear again soon.

This week, it rhymed.

Explaining why Willie Cauley-Stein had practiced well after struggling of late, Coach Cal said it had a lot to do with his willingness to accept coaching. Calipari noted a different look about Cauley-Stein, one that told him the sophomore had heeded his advice that "the smirkin' ain't workin' " and was fully tuned in to what his coach was saying.

Speaking on Saturday, Cauley-Stein was asked what Coach Cal's newest creation means.

"I don't know," Cauley-Stein said, drawing laughs. "I just look at Cal like I know what he's talking about."

Joking aside, Cauley-Stein returned to form as No. 14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) took down Georgia (10-8, 4-2 SEC), 79-54. After averaging one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks over his previous three games, Cauley-Stein was his usual disruptive self.

"I think my teammates knew I was going to come out of it, it was just a matter of time of when," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein had eight points -- six coming after halftime -- six blocks and six steals. His blocks and steals led directly to 10 UK possessions and nine points.

"Well, I told you, he was unbelievable in practice, and he was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed," Calipari said. "Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but he's just now coming back from that other stuff, so you still had the dregs in there. He had a little bit of it in there. But I thought he played well, blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws. That's who he is for us."

He was confident throughout the week a game like this one was forthcoming, but Cauley-Stein wasn't sure he was "back" until he woke up on Saturday morning. It was based entirely on the way on the way he had performed throughout the week.

"I've had a really good couple days of practice and I felt like my normal self," Cauley-Stein said. "Other times in practice I was just kind of out there going through the motions. And this time I was actually juiced and ready to get back to producing."

Since UK had played well even as he had struggled, Cauley-Stein didn't think of himself as being in a slump until he heard others talk about it. He caught wind of media wondering about what was going on and heard from fans as well.

The tone of those interactions: very positive.

"I was touched by it because last year, that was happening, you're getting murdered for one because you're losing," Cauley-Stein said. "So this year I was kind of like, I'll just stay off Twitter but then I was on there and it was real positive. It was good that our fans are here to pick us up."

After showing up on social media for Cauley-Stein, fans did the same in person on Saturday. In spite of a winter storm and freezing temperatures in Lexington, 23,367 packed Rupp Arena. They were treated to a performance that may have been UK's most complete of the season.

Aaron Harrison led four Wildcats in double figures with 15 points as UK shot 50 percent from the field on the strength of crisp ball movement.

"Coach just said no ball-stoppers," said Harrison, who had three of Kentucky's 16 assists. "We just all know that we all can play, definitely, and just want to share the ball with each other."

UK had a similar all-for-one attitude on defense, holding Georgia to 16-of-49 (32.7 percent) shooting and forcing 20 Bulldog turnovers. It's no coincidence it happened as Cauley-Stein shook off whatever had ailed him over the past two weeks.

"I just got back to the roots of the game and just flying around, contesting shots and running the floor," Cauley-Stein said.

Even when Cauley-Stein wasn't racking up steals and blocks, he was affecting the game.

Georgia played a bigger lineup with second-leading scorer Kenny Gaines and backup Juwan Parker out due to injury, but the Bulldogs were clearly bothered by Cauley-Stein's length and activity and the Cats buoyed by it.

"We get a lot more pressure because he always gets defensive stops," said James Young, who had 13 points. "I feel like that's when we all step up too."

UK won twice during Cauley-Stein's three-game slump and lost only on a last-second dunk at overtime, showing the Cats are capable of staying afloat without the 7-footer at the top of his game. But at the same time, UK needs Cauley-Stein to reach its potential.

"Like I said, we can win without Willie," Calipari said. "We're not winning big without Willie."

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