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April 2014 Archives

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For the 10th-ranked Kentucky softball team, its 7-3, extra-inning win over its in-state rival Louisville was all about bouncing back and continuing to make history.

The Wildcats had a tough 1-2 series last weekend at home against Tennessee, but bounced back Wednesday and won their program-record-tying 41st game of the season.

Kentucky lost a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, but recovered with four runs in the eighth to claim its first win at Louisville since 2006.

UK stranded 10 runners on base, but bounced back in the next half inning to force the Cardinals to strand nine on the base paths to give UK its first series sweep of U of L since 2003.

Needless to say, with one weekend left in the regular season, it was a big win for Kentucky in an always emotional, hard-fought contest.

The fact that it took extra innings made the bounce back win even sweeter.

It all started in the bottom of the seventh inning, with UK clinging to a 3-1 lead. Sophomore ace Kelsey Nunley was on the mound for her fifth inning of work after she allowed no runs on just three hits after entering the game in the third inning.

Nunley allowed two home runs in the seventh to tie the score and force extra innings. What could quickly turn into a deflating loss was never an option in UK's first-base dugout thanks to Krystal Smith's leadoff single to left field in the top of the eighth.

"After Krystal got that leadoff single, we all were like 'all right, let's get things rolling, we have to score her," sophomore Nikki Sagermann said. "I had confidence in our offense, I knew we were going to go out and get the lead back. We really wanted to win this game, it was important to us."

Smith's single got the inning going, and the Wildcats never looked back. Senior Emily Jolly bunted Smith to second, followed by sophomore Maisie Steed's infield single and junior Griffin Joiner's bloop single to center.

Sophomore Sylver Samuel stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and sent a slapper to third base. The third baseman fired home, but Smith was able to slide in safely.

"All I was thinking was that I have to take off full speed , be fast and slide hard," Smith said. "That's what I tried to do. Once the catcher started to tumble down, I know I had it. I saw the ball over on the ground and thought 'alright, let's keep it going."

Sagermann did just that, with a screaming double down the right field line that platted two more and extend UK's lead to 6-3. The first hard hit ball of the entire inning gave the Wildcats some valuable insurance runs.

"It was really big," head coach Rachel Lawson said of her team's ability to bounce back in the eighth. "Krystal Smith was the one who got it started. She really had a great plan in the box, she made an adjustment, and when she did that, the team fed off of the momentum. The fact that she was able to fight, she sat on the pitch she wanted and did everything the right way. The team really learned from her and took it into their next at-bats."

Adjustments were the key in the eighth inning. After a deflating seventh inning, the Wildcat batters made the necessary adjustments to score runs.

Outside of a three-run second inning, the U of L pitching staff allowed just six hits before the four-run, four-hit eighth.

"To be able to give up two home runs, that can definitely take the wind out of your sails," Lawson said. "Luckily we had a lot of great performances in the box in the last inning. We made some good adjustments, adjustments that we hadn't made in the previous six innings. It feels good, because that's something we've been working on for the past couple weeks, being able to make good adjustments in the box. To get such key contributions from the bottom of the order, so they can turn it around for the top, is a big deal for us."

"It's really big," Lawson said about being able to answer back with three runs in the second after the Cardinals scored one in the first. "Louisville is a very well-coached team, they were definitely prepared when they came in. They hadn't seen Meagan Prince at all, so the fact they were prepared says a lot about their program. To be able to get out of it giving up one, I felt pretty lucky."

The adjustments were the key to secure the record-tying win. With history on the line, there wasn't any other option for the Wildcats other than to buckle down and get the win.

Going into the game, the team knew they had an opportunity to win at Louisville and sweep the season series for the first time in Lawson's seven year tenure at UK.

Especially for the seniors, like Smith, they wanted nothing more than to get that win for their head coach.

"Coach Lawson hadn't beaten them here in her tenure, so going into the game, this was big for us seniors, we wanted to end on a high note, especially at Louisville. This program has built into a program that has done things we've never done before, so going into that big inning, we knew we had to attack, stay in the game and we have to win the game."

UK will look to keep it going on the road this weekend at Georgia in its final SEC series of the season before the conference tournament commences on May 7.

Thanks to a bounce-back, history-making win Wednesday night in Louisville, the Wildcats will have momentum on their side. If they continue to make adjustments and bounce back from a tough inning, there's no doubt the momentum will continue to side with Lawson's team.

Videos from the 2014 CATSPY Awards

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UK Athletics hosted the 12th annual CATSPY Awards on Monday in Memorial Coliseum, with student-athletes, coaches and staff dressing up to celebrate a memorable 2013-14. You can find all the award winner right here, but the highlight of the evening is always the video produced by Kentucky Wildcats TV. Check them all out below.

Happy Dance

Softball

Men's Tennis

Women's Soccer

Rifle

Track and Field

Men's Swimming and Diving

Women's Swimming and Diving

It was dubbed "Big Blue Weekend," and a big weekend it was for the Big Blue Nation.

In the span of 44 hours, UK baseball hosted Ole Miss, the UK softball team hosted Tennessee in addition to the annual Blue-White spring football game.

Fourty-four hours, seven games and 46,883 total fans. On a beautiful weekend in the bluegrass, Commonwealth Stadium, John Cropp Stadium and Cliff Hagan Stadium were the places to be.

The spring game attendance was 35,117. It was the second-largest crowd in program history behind last season's, when over 50,000 watched UK's annual spring scrimmage. As No. 9 softball took on No. 8 Tennessee in a top-10 matchup, 4,664 fans filled John Cropp Stadium, the largest crowd for a three-game series in program history.

Big Blue Nation did not disappoint this weekend and came out in droves to support their team as only they could.

After the baseball and softball teams opened the weekend on Friday night, the party hit its peak on Saturday with a jam-packed day.

Head football coach Mark Stoops got things started when he threw out the first pitch at the baseball game in front of 2,474 fans. Each of the baseball team's three games drew at least 2,200 fans.

As the football team arrived at Commonwealth Stadium, players and coaches were greeted by fans, forming the Catwalk into the stadium. The energy and sheer numbers from the Big Blue Nation for Saturday's Catwalk were like those seen on Saturdays in the fall, not in the spring.

"Great turnout today," assistant coach Neal Brown said. "Our Catwalk was tremendous. It was like an in-season Catwalk today. They were lined--it was backed up and then the crowd in the game was terrific. That shows people, that shows recruits that people are serious about football here and we are very thankful. I want to make sure that I thank the fans."


The parking lots surrounding Commonwealth Stadium were a sea of blue hours before kickoff. Food on the grill, music blaring and footballs flying through the air made it seem like a typical fall Saturday. All that was missing was a chill in the air and some color in the leaves.

Once inside the stadium, 35,117 fans watched as the Blue team beat the White squad, 38-14. Not only was it the second-largest spring game crowd in UK history, but it was the 12th-best crowd in the country this spring and seventh in the SEC.

UK is one of just 16 schools to draw 30,000 fans or more this spring.


As the football game was winding down, the softball team's second game of its series with Tennessee was beginning, with another big crowd on hand.

The second-largest crowd in program history, 1,858 saw the Wildcats beat their SEC rivals, 5-2, to even the three-game series. The sold-out crowd came a day before the Big Blue Nation packed in 1,685 Sunday on Senior Day for a second consecutive sellout.

"The fan base was incredible this weekend and especially today on Senior Day for them to come pack this place was awesome," softball head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Saturday the fan support really helped push us over the edge. I love the Big Blue Nation and everything they do for our athletic department."


While Big Blue Weekend officially is complete, there is still plenty of action left in the 2014 season for UK's spring sports at home.

The baseball team hosts Auburn on Senior Weekend May 9-11, while the men's tennis team is expected to host the NCAA Regionals, May 9-10.

The following weekend, the SEC Track and Field Championships come to Lexington May 15-18. Should the softball team host the NCAA Regional for the second consecutive season, that will be held at John Cropp Stadium May 15-18.

Video: Softball Senior Day tribute

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A strong pitching performance by both senior Lauren Cumbess and freshman Meagan Prince led the way for the ninth-ranked UK softball team in a 5-2 win over No. 8 Tennessee Saturday.

Four innings from Cumbess, in which she allowed two runs on five hits and left with the score tied at 2-2, were followed by three scoreless innings from Prince. 

Cumbess was pitching well, but head coach Rachel Lawson made the decision to bring in Prince was made before the game started. 

"Lauren was doing a good job, but we thought the change of speed was needed because they were coming up a third time in the order," Lawson said. "We just thought, because Tennessee is such an awesome hitting team, that it made sense to give them a change in pace and speed. That was actually planned from the get-go."

The pitching change paid off in a big way. Prince came in and allowed just three hits in the final three innings. The freshman struck out four and walked no one.

It was a strong sixth inning, striking out the side, which gave Lawson the confidence to send Prince out to finish the game in the seventh.

"When Meagan came out in the sixth inning she was just awesome," Lawson said. "She was throwing the ball hard and it was breaking. They even knew what pitch was coming and they had trouble squaring up on the ball. It didn't make a lot of sense to take her out in the seventh. I felt like today was her day. She came out and capitalized against the top of the order, which is very good, in the top of the seventh."

Prince's outing gave her her second win in SEC play, both against ranked opponents. The win came after she struggled Sunday in a loss to Arkansas and Tuesday at Western Kentucky.

The Martin, Tenn., native rebounded in a big way.

"I just felt like all my work had paid off," Prince said. "I had a list of things I had to get better on and work on in practice. I got a few of those things accomplished, and I felt like it paid off."

The pitching staff is a close-knit group, and Cumbess couldn't have been happier to see the freshman come in and finish the game on a strong note and get the win.

"She and I always talk about how the pitching staff always has each other's backs," Cumbess said. "Whenever she comes in, we are always so confident that they are going to get the job done. She goes out there and throws hard, trusts her pitches and she just did great today. We're so happy for her."

The two-run performance by the pitching duo marked just the seventh time in 47 games the Lady Volunteers had been limited to two or fewer runs. Only two other SEC teams have held UT to two or fewer runs.

After a tough loss in the series-opener on Friday, in which the pitching staff allowed one earned run, Saturday was a nice bounce-back on all accounts.

A home run from Cumbess in the fifth, her eighth of the season, certainly helped.

"Our goal today was to play solid defense, hit the ball well and have a great performance on the mound," Cumbess said. "Meagan did great coming in. Defensively, I think we were also very solid. We met our goal today."

The win kept the Wildcats tied for second in the SEC with a 13-7 record. Sunday, the two teams will square off for the series win and to help break the tie in the league standings.

First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium.

UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK held its annual Blue/White Spring Game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky fans listened all spring to the talk about how their team had improved since the Wildcats last took the field in November.

They heard from Mark Stoops about the way an extended winter in UK's High Performance program had made the Cats bigger, stronger and faster. They hoped that the seven newcomers who enrolled in January would add some much-needed depth and talent. They expected a full year in a new system would do the veterans some good.

During the Blue/White Spring Game, fans got to see their team back up the talk.

"You feel much better," Stoops said, reflecting on his team's progress over the past year. "You know, I really tried not to ever, you know, throw everybody under the bus, including myself and the team, but we just weren't very good. We're better. We're still not where we need to be but we're better. We're at that point where you can really start to feel that improvement."

The 35,117 fans in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium -- UK's second-largest crowd ever for a spring game -- and those watching at home felt it too.

A year ago, the record-setting crowd was there to celebrate where everyone believed UK could go in the future more than anything else. On Saturday, those fans were able to celebrate what the Cats are starting to become.

"We know what to do," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We're more talented. We're not where we need to be. We need more talent. I think that's obvious. I would like for our White team to be more competitive at times. I thought they were earlier in the game."

UK's need for more depth was evidenced by the final score, a 38-14 Blue team victory. Comprised almost entirely by first teamers, Blue outscored White 31-7 after an even first quarter. All told, the Blue team rolled up 437 yards of offense and held White to 165.

"We are by no means a finished product, but I felt like we've improved, certainly from the fall," Stoops said. "This spring we are getting better. Got a long way to go. But overall, I was very happy with the team's energy. They have been solid all spring, really."

Unwilling to show some of the wrinkles installed this spring, the Cats kept it relatively "vanilla" on both sides of the ball. Stoops may have avoided emptying his bag of tricks, but UK's progress was on display anyway.

"I think we have improved mentality-wise," Bud Dupree said. "We have the same team except a couple guys, so we have to have the same mentality to want to, to want to get better, to want to do it and the want to produce."

UK was particularly productive in the ground game, with top running backs Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, Josh Clemons and Mikel Horton combining for 308 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Kemp, a sophomore, led the way with 11 carries for 90 yards and two touchdowns to go with two catches for 41 yards. The highlight -- and arguably the highlight of the scrimmage -- was his 48-yard burst down the sideline, the last 10 yards of which he spent high-stepping into the end zone.

"It's just me out there having fun, celebrating, keeping the fans interested," Kemp said. "In the regular season, I'm not going to be doing that. You'll probably see me on the sideline because we don't want that to be called back."

Kemp will be wise to be more measured in his celebrations because he and his fellow runners figure to have more such opportunities in 2014. UK will of course throw the ball in Brown's Air Raid attack, but the Cats would be unwise to neglect running the football stable of backs as deep and diverse as this one

"We gotta have something to hang our hat on," Brown said. "I think right now we're pretty good at running the ball and our play-action's pretty good. We hit a couple big play-action plays today."

Throwing those play-action passes were quarterbacks Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker.

Towles started -- which, as Stoops said Friday, meant "he earned the right to go out there with the first group" -- and displayed the improvement his coaches have raved about all spring. With fleeter feet and a quicker release, Towles looked the part of a Southeastern Conference quarterback in leading the Blue team to a touchdown in the game's first drive.

"As you saw today, I'm a totally different player than I was last year," Towles said. "I mean, it's night and day. I'm excited about where we're at as a team, I'm excited about where we're at as an offense and I'm excited about where we're going."

Towles completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards, his most impressive work coming on the final drive of the first half. Starting on his own 19 with just 53 seconds on the clock, Towles completed 6 of 7 passes for 54 yards to set Austin MacGinnis up for a 40-yard field goal as time expired.

"That was big," Brown said. "That's things we gotta do. ... He threw them on the sidelines. He understood that the ball had to be on the sideline. He got it outside. He didn't miss it inside. Those are key things, without question."

Towles' lone major mistake came just minutes prior, when he fired a screen pass too close to Za'Darius Smith. The 6-foot-6 defensive end snared it in midair and returned it 13 yards before Towles wrapped him up. With the quarterbacks wearing black jerseys protecting them from contact, the play was blown dead even though Smith kept his feet and sprinted for what he thought was a touchdown.

"I didn't even feel him," said Smith, who added a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. "I just was thinking about the end zone, the ball going into the end zone."

On the next play, Blue's offense finished the job. Phillips hit Steven Borden for a 17-yard score, one of two passing touchdowns for the redshirt freshman, in a 7-of-11, 74-yard performance representative of the kind of consistency that makes him a factor in this quarterback race.

"He makes a lot of good decisions," Brown said. "He does not make big negative plays. He's not gonna do things that hurt you, that put you in bad situations."

Barker, a true freshman who attended his high-school prom mere weeks ago, is still working on eliminating some of those mistakes. He had his moments on Saturday -- most notably a 30-yard touchdown strike that hit Demarco Robinson in stride and closed out the scoring -- but it wasn't his best day of the spring.

"I had definitely struggled all day and I felt like I got a monkey off my back (with the touchdown pass)," said Barker, who completed 7 of 19 passes for 74 yards. "It was good but, like I said, but I would like to have done better."

Spring game aside, Barker is still very much a contender. And as Stoops has reiterated all spring, UK will be better at quarterback regardless who wins the job.

"I think when we have everybody healthy, all the quarterbacks will look better," Stoops said. "So there's no decision yet. I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well. I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see."

Stoops would put no timetable on a decision, saying only that he and Brown will meet in the coming week to determine how they will move forward.

"We are going to go back and look at this tape and we'll look at the spring in its entirety and look at all the drives and everything we've been through and we'll sit down next week and see where we are at as a staff," Stoops said.

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown

Patrick Towles


Reese Phillips


Drew Barker



Video: Stoops' spring game press conference

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Video: Blue/White Spring Game highlights

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Live blog: Blue/White Spring Game 2014

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Stoops on final practice before spring game


For months now, the Kentucky Wildcats have worked toward the Blue/White Spring Game.

It's been since November that the Cats have taken the field in front of a crowd, first dedicating themselves to UK's High Performance program and most recently toiling through a month of spring practice.

But with barely 24 hours to go before fans pack Commonwealth Stadium, the Cats weren't about to let a Friday practice go to waste.

"I think the guys are excited," Mark Stoops said. "It gets a little long towards the end of spring here at the end of our fourth week. But I was very pleased with the work we got done. I think we made progress even again today. It was good."

UK moved its final practice before the spring game indoors due to rain, working without pads. Stoops reported it was an efficient day, particularly in the passing game.

"Starting to make the routine plays look routine," Stoops said.

It's Stoops' belief that the progress UK has made since the end of the 2013 season will be on display on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The thousands of fans expected to fill Commonwealth -- which will have a reduced capacity of approximately 42,500 due to ongoing construction -- certainly deserve a show.

"Appreciate the support," Stoops said. "I think the 40-some thousand that come out there this year are going to have more fun than they did last year when we hit 50. We'll be better. There will be more to cheer for. We look forward to it, appreciate the support. It's so helpful in so many ways, so we're going to have a good time."

Injuries have piled up as the spring has gone on, creating some stress for Stoops ahead of the spring game. But with Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick all expected to participate, UK will be "all right" at wide receiver -- the position hit hardest -- according to offensive coordinator Neal Brown.

The Cats will play this year's spring game with a very similar format to the one held last April. The game will pit first stringers vs. the rest of the team "for the most part," with a handful of players able to change sides if need be. The game is expected to feature 12-minute quarters.

"The first half will be normal outside of just shortened a little bit," Stoops said. "So we'll get after it the first half. The second half, if we're getting enough plays we may run the clock a little bit in the fourth quarter. But for the most part, it's gonna be a normal game outside of the live kicking situations."

There will be no returns on punts, no rush on field goals and no kickoffs. Quarterbacks will be protected from contact.

Speaking of the signal callers, a year ago Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles all were on the field for the spring game's first play. The move was both a show of the coaching staff's sense of humor an evidence of just how even the quarterback battle was.

This year, only one quarterback will be on the field to open the game. By no means is that quarterback guaranteed to start come August, but Stoops admitted the significance of the spring game starter should not be dismissed.

"I think it gives you a little indication," Stoops said. "I mean, sure. I'd be lying if I said (otherwise). Last year it really was a toss-up. This year, I think we're starting to narrow it down. We'll put the person out there with the first group that we think has earned the right to go out there with the first group tomorrow. I think it's very close still -- it's very close -- but we'll see."

Close as the battle still may be, improved quarterback play has been a consistent theme this spring. That, however, isn't the biggest reason for encouragement. The culture surrounding the program, as Stoops has always wanted, continues to change.

"I love the leadership," Stoops said. "I like the energy of our team. I think we're learning how to work, learning how to go about our business, and fundamentally we're improving. Because we're getting the leadership, we're getting the guys challenging guys, we're getting out there with a purpose and getting some work done."

Brown after Friday practice


Aaron and Andrew Harrison announced their decisions to return to Kentucky on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron and Andrew Harrison announced their decisions to return to Kentucky on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After a flurry of announcements over the last two weeks of Wildcat big men bypassing the NBA Draft, UK appeared set in the frontcourt for 2014-15.

With guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison tweeting news of their decisions to return to Kentucky on Friday, John Calipari's team should be just fine in the backcourt too.

"ONE MORE YEAR #BBN #strivefor9," Andrew Harrison said.

"Glad to say that I will be back at UK for my sophomore year. #BBN," Aaron Harrison said minutes later.

The announcement triggered a torrent of excitement on the part of UK fans, an understandable feeling given the key roles the two 6-foot-6 twin brothers played in leading their team to the national championship game.

Explaining his decision to return just two days before the NBA's deadline to declare for the draft, Aaron Harrison cited that NCAA Tournament run.

"I'm coming back for a second season in large part because last year's title run was special, but we still have unfinished business," Aaron Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison started all 40 of UK's games as a freshman, averaging 13.7 points and 3.0 rebounds. Memorably, he hit game-winning 3-pointers against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to lift UK to within one victory of the ninth national championship the Cats will pursue again in 2014-15.

Andrew Harrison -- who started 39 games at point guard and averaged 10.9 points and a team-high 4.0 assists -- had that on his mind when he decided to bypass this year's draft.

 "I'm returning for my sophomore season because I want to win a national title." Andrew Harrison said.

Calipari will of course be looking to coach UK to that national championship, but his first thought was about how he expects them to develop as they come back to Lexington.

"I'm excited about Aaron and Andrew's decision to return for next season," head coach John Calipari said. "Their postseason play was a result of the improvement they made all season and displayed what they're capable of doing on the court. I look forward to having the opportunity to work with them during the summer and watch them lead next year's team."

The team they will lead features a remarkable stockpile of talent. The Harrison twins are among nine McDonald's All-Americans on UK's 2014-15 roster. Willie Cauley-Stein -- who likely would have been a first-round draft pick this season had he declared -- is not included in that group.

Cauley-Stein was the first of six Wildcats to announce he would return to UK and was followed by Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and finally the Harrison twins.

They will combine with fellow scholarship returnees Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins to give Coach Cal his most experienced Kentucky team. Players responsible for 64.6 percent of UK's minutes played in 2013-14, 59.3 percent of its scoring, 54.2 percent of its rebounds and 67.3 percent of its assists will again be in the fold.

They will be joined by yet another highly touted recruiting class featuring Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Not long after the twins' decision, three of those incoming freshmen had already weighed in on social media, among others.







Video: Marrow mic'd up at spring practice

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Allison Peare (Photo by Shawn Price) Allison Peare (Photo by Shawn Price)
Even with the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championships still to come, the Kentucky track and field teams can expect to compete in front of the biggest crowds they will see this season at this weekend's University of Pennsylvania Relay Carnival.

With over 100,000 fans annually in attendance over the duration of the week-long Penn Relays -- including an expected crowd more than 40,000 on Saturday -- the Penn Relays is arguably the most visible meet in collegiate track and field, although the championship meets are plenty prestigious.

So even with four weeks remaining till the start of the track and field postseason, the Penn Relays will mark the start of the home stretch for Kentucky's 2014 season.

As such, the meet will serve as a major benchmark for the Wildcats.

"The Penn Relays is a big-time event with big-time crowds," head coach Edrick Floreal said. "It truly is a track and field carnival unlike anything else. It's organized chaos. We go into this meet hoping its very competitive field as well as huge crowds and fast pace help prepare our team for what's to come in future weeks."

The organized chaos Floreal refers to is mostly a result of just how many athletes compete at the Penn Relays. There are entries from 1,020 high schools and 252 colleges, meaning not a minute is wasted in the meet schedule and as a result the positioning of runners to be in place for the start of races is intense.

But the UK coaching staff is hopeful the hectic atmosphere can help prepare the Wildcats to handle plenty of distractions when the time comes to race.

Six of the top 10 teams in the nation will compete at the Penn Relays, providing a similar level of competition to the 10 top-25 men's teams and eight top-25 women's teams in the SEC that will compete at the Conference Championships, hosted by UK in mid-May.

Relay Contenders

The main draw among collegiate races at the Penn Relays are the "Championship of America" relay races, from which the winners receive the famed Penn Relays wagon wheels.

Kentucky has won two Collegiate Championship of American wagon wheels all-time, but not since the 1996 men's sprint medley relay. The Wildcats won the woman's DMR in 1986.

This year the Wildcats boast their best chance in years to claim a Wagon Wheel from multiple relays.

Arguably their best chance will be in the women's sprint medley relay (Friday, 6:05 p.m. ET), where the Wildcats are the top seed after running an NCAA-leading 3:43.20 at the Florida Relays earlier this month.

The sixth-ranked Wildcat women's team also boasts top-10 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams, meaning they can be expected to field solid lineups in each of  those events in addition to the 4x200m relay.

The UK men's team will also field some intriguing distance relay squads with entries in both the DMR, where they finished fifth at the SEC Indoor Championships last month and the 4xmile relay, which will be televised Saturday afternoon on NBCSN.

The Penn Relays will also include some intriguing individual events, including two-time SEC Champion Cally Macumber's 5,000-meter season debut (Thursday, 8:40 p.m. ET) and two national top-25 100m hurdlers in Kayla Parker and Leah Nugent (Friday, 4 p.m. ET).

Kentucky will also have throwers competing at UC San Diego's Triton Invitational and multiple competitors at the Bellarmine Classic this weekend.

Wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord


Offensive line coach John Schlarman


Welcome to UK Gymnastics Championship Central. Follow this page for daily all-access updates on the UK gymnastics team during its postseason competition. Videos, photos, news, commentary and more from team headquarters at the SEC Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships, can all be found right here.

Additional updates on the Wildcats can be found on social media. Fans can follow the team on Twitter at @UKGymnastics, like them on Facebook at Facebook.com/UKGymnastics and on Instagram at Instagram.com/UKgymnastics.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
UK Among the Nation's Attendance Leaders | 2:25 p.m. ET
The national attendance rankings for the 2014 season have been released, and once again Kentucky is among the NCAA leaders. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats averaged over 3,000 fans per meet.

Attendance Graphic.jpg
In 2014, the Wildcats are one of just eight schools, six of them from the SEC, to average more than 3,000 fans per meet and have a season high crowd over 5,000.

An average of 3,265 fans watched the Wildcats in four home contests in 2014, which ranks eighth nationally. UK is one of seven SEC teams to rank in the top 10 in average attendance, while all eight league teams are in the top 17.

Kentucky opened the season with Excite Night on Jan. 10, when 5,839 filled Memorial Coliseum, the biggest crowd at home since 2007 and third-largest since at least 1997. The total is ninth in the NCAA rankings of school's highest home meet attendance.

Thank you to the Big Blue Nation for their continued support this season, and we look forward to seeing you back in Memorial Coliseum in 2015!

Monday, April 21, 2014
Countdown to the 2015 Season | 11:40 a.m. ET
While Kentucky's season ended Friday, the official end to the 2014 season was yesterday at the NCAA Event Finals. After Florida and Oklahoma shared the NCAA title on Saturday, four individual national champions were crowned Sunday. The 2015 schedule will be released early in the fall, but the countdown to next season officially begins today, 263 days ahead of the season-opener.

2015 Countdown.jpg

Saturday, April 19, 2014
Photos from the NCAA Championships & Back in Lexington | 3:15 p.m. ET
As we arrive back in Lexington, check out the photo gallery from the last three days at the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, Ala., on UK's Facebook page. Additionally, if you missed it, a full recap from the NCAA Championships, where UK made its first appearance since 2010, can be found here on UKathletics.com.


On the Road Home | 8:30 a.m. CT
The 2014 season  came to a close for UK yesterday at the NCAA Championships, and now we are on our way back to Lexington. A complete recap from the NCAA Championships first session, where senior Audrey Harrison finished tied for 18th on balance beam is here

Friday, April 18, 2014
NCAA Championships Recap | 7:30 p.m. CT
A complete recap, results, video and more from Audrey Harrison's performance on beam in the NCAA Championships first session can be found here. Harrison finished in a tie for 18th with a 9.800. The score is tied for sixth-highest NCAA score in UK history on the event.

In session one, Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU advanced to tomorrow's Super Six team finals. The second session of the NCAA Championships semifinals is underway, with host-Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA and Utah.

Harrison Ties for 18th with UK's Sixth-Best Score in NCAA History | 4:40 p.m. CT

Senior Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on beam to finish tied for 18th among 45 competitors in session 1 of the national championships. The score is tied for the sixth-highest on beam at the NCAA Championships in program history. Only Jenny Hansen, who won eight national titles as a Wildcat, has recorded a higher score.

Complete results can be found here, and we caught up with Audrey after the competition, and that video can be found here or below. Audrey, the coaches and staff are heading to dinner now, before tonight's second session. We'll have much more from Birmingham towards the beginning of the second session, at 8 p.m. ET.


Harrison Scores a 9.800 | 3:15 p.m. CT

Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on balance beam. She currently is tied for 11th, shy of advancing to Sunday's individual finals. Through four rotations, a 9.900 is needed to place in the top four and advance.

Underway at the NCAA Championships | 1:05 p.m. CT

The teams, along with UK's Audrey Harrison, have been introduced, and we are about to get underway in the first session of the NCAA Championships. Fans can watch the full competition here on NCAA.com, or follow along with live results. Harrison will compete on beam with Georgia, in the fourth of six rotations.


NCAA Championships Meet Day is Here | 7:45 a.m. CT

The wait for Audrey Harrison and UK is almost over, the NCAA Championships begin today. The competition begins at 2 p.m. ET, and Harrison will compete in the fourth rotation on beam. Notes, stats, historical records and more are all available in the preview and meet notes on UKathletics.com. Harrison will be the first Wildcat since 2010 to compete at the national championship meet and the 10th UK gymnast in program history. She is the fourth to qualify on an individual event and the first on beam.

gym gameday NCAA semi 2014-tweet.jpg

Thursday, April 17, 2014
NCAA Championships Notes | 4:20 p.m. CT
Notes for the NCAA Championships, which include info on UK's qualifier Audrey Harrison, Kentucky's NCAA Championships history, a recap of the 2014 season and more are available here and by clicking on the first page of the notes, below.

NCAA Championships Notes

Championship Practice About to Begin | 1 p.m. CT

The practice session is wrapping up, and UK senior Audrey Harrison had a good practice on balance beam, her event at tomorrow's NCAA Championships semifinal. She will be in the same rotation as Georgia, so the practice also gave Audrey the opportunity to meet their team. We are heading to lunch now downtown, before having the rest of the afternoon and evening off.

Championship Practice About to Begin | 11:15 a.m. CT

The first NCAA Championships practice session, which includes UK senior Audrey Harrison, is about to begin here at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham. It is familiar territory for Harrison and UK coaches and staff, after the SEC Championships were held in the same venue nearly a month ago.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014
NCAA Banquet | 8:50 p.m. CT
We just returned to the hotel after a great banquet in downtown Birmingham with the rest of the teams at this year's championships. The dinner had a great view of the city, and we were able to enjoy the end of a beautiful day outside, mingling with everyone before dinner. After dinner, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, a Birmingham native, performed. It was a great event to kick off a fun next few days here with the nation's best collegiate gymnasts.


Off to Birmingham | 11:45 a.m. ET

We are officially on the road to Birmingham, Ala., for the 2014 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. The travel party includes senior Audrey Harrison, head coach Tim Garrison, assistant coach Mary McDaniel, trainer Jake Smith and myself, Charlie Healy, the team's media relations director. The drive is expected to take about six and a half hours, and upon arrival in Birmingham, we will all go to the NCAA Championship banquet, with the other teams and individuals competing this weekend. Assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, along with many of Audrey's teammates, will join us on Friday.

Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops


It was a family reunion of sorts at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday, as Mark Stoops was joined on the practice field by brothers Mark and Mike.

Oklahoma -- where Bob and Mike serve as head coach and defensive coordinator respectively -- wrapped up spring practice earlier this month, so two of Mark's three older brothers took the opportunity to pay a visit to Lexington.

"We're going to go watch film and all that right now and everything," Mark Stoops said. "They came in last night and talked some football with us. It was good to have them."

Of course the Stoops brothers will spend some time catching up and enjoying themselves, but media watching the first half of practice on Wednesday saw firsthand that Mark Stoops will be calling on his brothers' expertise.

"That's what there here for," Mark Stoops said. "I mean, they're not here just for fun. You know, we've got to put them to work. ... We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment. So it's good to have them here. I'm definitely going to utilize them while they're here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done."

Bob Stoops even traded his normal crimson and cream for a UK pullover.

"They like to support us," Mark Stoops said. "He's proud to wear it. I'm sure he'll take that home with him."

Stoops reported the Wildcats had another "good, physical practice" with his brothers and John Calipari watching, including a period of solid work on short-yardage situations. UK continues to plug along through the final week of spring, battling through a number of injuries on both sides of the ball.

"It just happens," Stoops said. "That's the way it is. Some of them were through the winter with surgeries and some of them were dinged up in practice. The good news is, I think there's nothing major -- knock on wood -- nothing that's gonna keep guys out for the year. So we should be at 100 percent if we don't have anything new happen."

The latest injury is to sophomore wide receiver Jeff Badet, who broke his fibula on Monday. Stoops called the injury a clean break, meaning no surgery will be needed. Badet is expected to miss two-to-three months but heal in time for fall camp.

"He was alone," Stoops said. "It was a good play-action pass; he was wide-open. He kind of got underthrown and just a freaky accident."

Badet's injury is another short-term blow to UK's wide receiver depth, as is A.J. Legree's decision to transfer, which Stoops announced on Wednesday. As a result, Stoops is considering ways to minimize injury risk at Saturday's Spring Game while also still putting on a show for fans.

"It looks like I'm gonna split it up ones against everybody else," Stoops said. "So the only thing it'll change as far as the fans and things like that -- and most people do it -- you're gonna speed up the game somehow. We can't afford to take a whole boatload of reps. We're just thin. So we'll iron out all the details and tell you, but it'll be very similar to last year. Some type of abbreviated schedule."

D.J. Eliot on UK's Wednesday practice



It was never going to be a pitchers' duel on Tuesday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

With the nation's top offense in town and a brisk wind blowing out to left field, Kentucky would have to put up some crooked numbers to take down Tennessee Tech.

"You could tell in BP the wind was blowing out pretty good to all fields, really," Matt Reida said. "Both teams in BP, you could really tell it was going to be an offensive night. It was going to be a challenge for the pitchers."

It certainly was, as No. 17 UK (27-14) won a 15-13 slugfest.

"I am a guy that's in tune with which way the wind's blowing when we're playing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "So, yes, I knew which way the wind was blowing and I knew we had a chance for this. I wouldn't have dreamed it would be quite like this."

Looking to sustain the momentum built last week in three road wins in four tries, UK turned to its offense to get the job done after facing a 7-1 deficit. Rather than fall into the trap of swinging for the fences, the Cats kept their disciplined approach and the runs followed.

"I thought we stayed very positive in the dugout," Henderson said. "I thought we stayed very patient in the box. A couple of times it got tight where we really needed a hit to get back into it and we got it."

UK chipped away with three in the bottom of the fourth, using three walks, two hits and a hit-by-pitch. The Cats would then pull to within one in the fifth with a two-run shot by JaVon Shelby. In the sixth, UK took its first lead with five runs an evening that featured 31 hits and 10 home runs.

"A great win by us," Henderson said. "Not a great game to watch, but a great win by our kids."

In the middle of everything was Reida.

The senior shortstop entered Tuesday night mired in an 0-for-11 slump, his batting average falling to .207 in the process. The lefty found his stroke early, doubling to left in the second inning, but it was his patience that got UK's rally started.

He walked to lead off the fourth and fifth innings, coming around to score both times. In a spot where pressing for extra bases would have understandable, Reida stayed within himself.

"They were throwing a lot of off speed to all of our guys," Reida said. "So it's tough to be patient, but we have such a good offense any type of lead for another team isn't a big concern for us, especially early."

If triggering the UK offense wasn't enough, Reida was rewarded in the sixth. With the bases loaded, Reida smoked his second double over the head over Tech centerfielder Jake Rowland to score the game-tying and go-ahead runs. An inning later, he added his first home run in 348 at-bats -- a stretch that dates back to his sophomore season -- on a solo shot.

"We always kind of give Matt a hard time about hitting home runs because he thinks he's a big power hitter," said a smiling A.J. Reed, the nation's leading home-run hitter. "So we were happy for him to get one. Finally he can back up a little bit of what he says."

The homer gave UK a 12-8 lead, but by no means was it safe. Tennessee Tech scored four in the top of the eighth to tie it on two-run blasts by Zach Stephens and Dylan Bosheers.

The Cats would answer in the bottom of the inning as Micheal Thomas hit a two-run homer. Later, Reida would add an important insurance run on a single to finish off his 4-for-4, four-RBI night before Kyle Cody closed it out with his fifth save.

"It's funny; baseball's a crazy game," Reida said. "Two days ago I feel lost and today everything coming off my bat's dropping.

"It's just a back-and-forth game. You try to stay positive and keep grinding away and the game will reward you."

Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was more than a year ago now that Julius Randle committed to Kentucky.

Just a few months later, he arrived on campus and began practicing with his teammates. Big Blue Madness, a tumultuous regular season and a magical NCAA Tournament were next on the docket.

As Randle sat at a podium announcing his decision to declare for the NBA Draft on Tuesday, he couldn't help but wonder where the time went.

"This season, this year, the more I think about it, it just went by fast," Randle said. "I'm definitely going to miss it. Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart. Growing up as a kid, it's always been my dream to play in the NBA, and there's no better opportunity for me to achieve that goal than now."

When Randle came to UK, he put thoughts of playing professionally on hold. Instead, he focused on building bonds with his team and playing for college basketball's ultimate prize.

The Wildcats came up one win short of the latter goal, but succeeded wildly when it came to the former. That's why Randle was able to make the decision to leave Lexington with his head held high.

"I know I came one game short of winning a national championship - we did as a team - but everything we went through this year is just an experience that I'll never forget," Randle said. "That alone was enough, kept me at peace to leave."

Short of beating Connecticut, Randle couldn't have accomplished much more in his short time as a Wildcat.

The 6-foot-9 forward arrived with a five-star pedigree and delivered. He was a dominant force from the beginning of the season onward in spite of facing double and triple teams after a 27-point, 13-rebound performance against Michigan State. Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds, garnering Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors in the process.

"I would say my one year here was fantastic because (John Calipari) goes into your home when he recruits you and he says, 'It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done,' " Randle said. " 'You're going to work the hardest you ever did.' You say OK, but you may not believe it. But once you're in the fire, what he said is true."

After surviving the fire, Randle moves on to the next challenge. He's the No. 5 prospect on Chad Ford's Big Board and the No. 4 overall pick in Draft Express's 2014 mock draft. No matter where he lands, Coach Cal sees a bright future ahead.

"I truly believe that Julius will be an even better pro than a college player," Calipari said in a release. "He was Shaq'd (Shaquille O'Neal) all year - in every way. I really appreciate all that he did for this program and how he represented all of us throughout the entire year. I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level."

While Calipari watches his former pupil in the NBA, Randle will be watching his former coach's team next season.

He had no insight to offer about the pending stay-or-leave decisions of Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but Randle had plenty of good things to say about next year's team.

"I mean, we have so much talent," Randle said. "Willie (Cauley-Stein) coming back. We have Marcus (Lee). He was huge in the tournament. All the incoming guys. We have so much talent coming in next year. We're definitely going to make another run."

The use of first person is particularly telling because Randle isn't about to stop being a Wildcat even though he won't wear the uniform next year. With that in mind, he had some advice to pass on to his UK brethren, who figure to shoulder some of the same expectations Randle and last year's Cats had to cope with.

"I think that's why I was able deal with the criticism myself, because I never really fed into or really read anything or believed anything," Randle said. "I just tried to stay in my own little circle or little bubble and focused on the team and that's all I really cared about. As long as you're invested into the team, that's your total focus, investing into being a student-athlete then you won't really won't waver too much from the criticism or expectations."

Video: Kentucky's SEC Network spot

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On Tuesday, the SEC Network revealed special spots for each of the league's 14 schools. Nothing says Kentucky quite like Big Blue Madness.

Demand the SEC Network today.

Video: Randle announces draft decision

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As I rode with our men's basketball team from the airport to the celebration of a remarkable NCAA Tournament run, I was reminded of the deep ties we share with our fans. I saw the blue you wore and the pride on your faces and couldn't help but think about how important the Big Blue Nation is to all we do.

It's a fact we have never forgotten, but it bears repeating: None of this is possible without you, the fans. Without you, none of us -- student-athletes, coaches, staff -- would be here.

With that in mind, I am asking everyone involved with UK Athletics to make a renewed commitment to our fans. We will honor those deep ties by making sure you have great experiences when you invest time and money to support your Wildcats. We are going to put you, the Big Blue Nation, first.

Three core concepts will guide this effort:

1.    We will compete for championships and make our fans proud.

I am incredibly proud of the work our Wildcats have done to make Kentucky as strong overall as it has ever been, culminating in the first top-25 finish in national all-sports standings in school history. For them to do it while also excelling in both the classroom and the community is even more impressive.

Now, just as I am asking my staff to take the fan experience to the next level, I am challenging student-athletes and coaches to build on that solid foundation and work to be the best department in the country and to continue to do it the right way. That's what the Big Blue Nation deserves.

We all share in this.

As a department, it is our job to give our teams the resources they need to compete for championships. With new and under-construction facilities across campus, I believe we are doing this. In all those venues, I ask you to help us create the best possible home-field advantage for all of our teams. I have seen and heard our fans be the difference in more games than I can count. We need you now more than ever.

2.    We will provide a first-class game-day experience.

We know your experience on game day begins well before you enter the stadium. It starts when you are making plans to attend a game, continues when you are parking your car and doesn't end until the moment you arrive at home. For that reason, we will be intentional and transparent in all we do, from our ticketing process to enhancing the action on the field with music, audio and video.

No matter the venue, we want to create an atmosphere that tells fans they are at a Kentucky event. We will strive to create memories for fans, not only through the action on the field but also through one-on-one interactions with each and every one of you.

3.    We will create a shared family atmosphere.

From children experiencing their first UK event to students supporting their school to fans who have been attending games for decades, we will create an atmosphere everyone can share. In doing this, we will ask fans to take an ownership role in the game-day experience by observing good sportsmanship, interacting positively with fellow fans and helping to take care of our facilities.

We have the best fans in the world and that will shine through in all we do. We truly appreciate you, the members of the Big Blue Nation. We will demonstrate this appreciation by connecting you to Kentucky like never before, using technology to supplement the game-day experience before, during and after events.

Though we will strive to be on the cutting edge, we will never forget where we come from. We share an incredibly special history and tradition and will always honor what it means to wear a Kentucky uniform.

Guided by these concepts, I formed a Fan Experience Committee with staff members from event management, marketing, ticketing and communications as we began the new year. We are meeting regularly to assess all aspects of our fan experience, but we need your help.

We want to know how we can best serve you. We want to know what we can do to give you the game-day experience you deserve. We are already investigating and refining on our own, but we need your input.

What can we do better? What are we already doing well? What have you seen at other sporting events that we should implement?

No suggestion is too big and none too small. From concessions to promotions to music selection, we want to know what matters to you. We are going to use every outlet available to us to listen to your feedback.


We are looking forward to hearing from you. Through our fan experience committee, we are taking a hard look at everything we do and your feedback will play an important role in this process.

We hope you notice improvements at the next UK event you attend, but BBN First is only just beginning.  

'Til the Battle Is Won,
Mitch Barnhart


Post-practice interview with Stoops


UK began the final week of spring on Monday, holding its 12th practice.

With just five days before the Blue/White Scrimmage on April 26, head coach Mark Stoops continues to like his team's direction.

"I think we're improving, competing," Stoops said. "Had a good third-down period today. So overall, we're still grinding it out, getting better and better each day. I like where we're going."

The only exception is on the injury front.

"Just getting some guys nicked up, and that's starting to bother me," Stoops said. "Nothing major -- I don't think anything major. Just guys that are going to be nicked up and maybe miss this last part of spring practice here."

That's frustrating to Stoops for a couple reasons, first because the improving Wildcats can use all the work they can get.

"We just need it," Stoops said. "You know, we have the spring, we have time to get guys back, but you're trying to find that good balance where you're getting good work in and competing as hard as we can, with staying healthy just so we can have good practices."

Stoops also has the fans in mind when he considers the Cats' bumps and bruises because of the upcoming Spring Game.

"A lot of it's for the fans," Stoops said. "And you want to get out there and put a good product on the field and have some fun. But we need to see where we're at."

UK's already thin receiving corps has been hit hard, the latest blow coming as sophomore Jeff Badet twisted an ankle on Monday. The Cats have been without Javess Blue and Alexander Montgomery throughout the spring, while Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick are contending with minor injuries.

"We're banged up a little bit at wideout," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Well, we're thin. Our numbers aren't where they should be. We've got to get -- we need more scholarship wideouts, we need more walk-on wideouts. We've got help coming. ... I think we're probably a year away from getting this thing, from a numbers standpoint, where it needs to be. We were grossly thin getting here, then we had some injuries this spring that definitely haven't helped."

The depth at receiver has added a wrinkle to the ongoing competition at quarterback between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. Brown has had to adjust on the fly to get them the work they need.

"That's why we were out here doing some extra work with me and (graduate assistant) Tyler (Sargent) catching the ball," Brown said. "Just because we don't have enough -- the quarterbacks aren't getting enough work right now, so we've got to build it in pre-practice and post-practice stuff to make sure they're getting enough reps of the stuff we're going to run."

Brown on Monday practice



Video: Highlights from Kentucky Relays

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Nikki Sagermann's sixth-inning home run lifted UK to a 4-3 victory over Arkansas on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Nikki Sagermann's sixth-inning home run lifted UK to a 4-3 victory over Arkansas on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Rachel Lawson has gotten to know Nikki Sagermann well over the last two years.

So well, in fact, that Lawson can usually tell when her sophomore third baseman is primed for a good night.

"If she's comfortable and she's balanced and she's seeing the ball, you know you're going to get a good performance out of her through the entire game," Lawson said. "So I felt great about her from the get-go."

But through her first two at-bats against Arkansas on Friday night, Sagermann had only a walk and a hard-hit lineout to show for her coach's belief. Still, when she stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth inning in a 3-3 game, Sagermann was confident.

"I was seeing the ball really well and she got behind in the count," Sagermann said. "So I knew she had to come with something fat and I just jumped on it."

Ahead in the count, Sagermann capitalized, driving a 2-0 offering from Arkansas starter Sydney Wright over the fence in right center and propelling No. 8 UK (37-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 win.

"She's just seeing the ball really well," Lawson said. "She's locked in, she's playing good team softball and it's coming a lot easier to her right now. Nikki's a great player for us and that's what she does well. Hopefully she'll keep it going."

Sagermann sustained the momentum she built last Sunday, when she hit two home runs in UK's sweep-clinching win at Ole Miss. The second of her homers came in the 10th inning, starting a seven-run rally.

Her three home runs in two games -- and back-to-back game winners -- are making her slow start to 2014 a distant memory. At the start of SEC play, Sagermann was batting .184 with just one home run. Now, she has nine homers, it batting .270 and has RBI in 11 of her last 15 games.

"It could be seeing more pitches because at the beginning of the year it's been a while since we've seen live pitching," Sagermann said. "But honestly I don't like thinking of the beginning of the season because obviously they're not great memories. I like to remember the good ones."

Lawson still remembers the slow start, but she's glad Sagermann has it going now.

"I hope she doesn't make it a habit over the next two years," Lawson said, "but what's important is once SEC play started, she's done a great job for us. She's a gamer, she really understands pitchers, she understands the game, she understands how to be a hitter and I think she's one of the better hitters in the league."

Starting the game similarly to the way Sagermann started her season, UK fell behind Arkansas 3-0 due to some sloppy defense and quiet bats. The Cats, however, capitalized on two Razorback errors to score three runs in the bottom of the fifth.

"What I liked is we put ourselves in a hole early with our poor defensive plays, but the team was able to stay focused, stay in the game," Lawson said.

Helping the cause was sophomore Kelsey Nunley, who excelled in an unfamiliar Friday-night bullpen role. Nunley (18-4) replaced Meagan Prince to start the fourth inning, pitching four shutout innings and allowing just one hit.

"She was throwing the ball hard," Lawson said. "She had command of all of her pitches. She looked good and you could tell. Arkansas is a great hitting team. They average seven runs a game. So the fact that she could come in here and shut them out really says a lot about her performance."

Nunley's performance kept UK in it until the sixth inning, when Sagermann stepped in fairly certain something good was about to happen.

"I just can tell when I'm seeing it and when I'm not," Sagermann said.


Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's frontcourt seems to get longer and deeper by the day.

Days after Willie Cauley-Stein decided to come back for his junior season, Marcus Lee followed suit. The 6-foot-9 forward will bypass the NBA Draft and return to UK for his sophomore year, UK announced.

"I've really enjoyed my college experience and I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Lee said in a release. "Playing in the Final Four was such an amazing feeling, but I want to come back and help win that final game this year."

Lee averaged just 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds, battling an illness that dropped 15 pounds from his already slender 215-pound frame, but reminded everyone of his talent after Cauley-Stein went down with a left ankle injury in the Sweet 16. The athletic Antioch, Calif., native and McDonald's All-American had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the Elite Eight against Michigan, including four memorable put-back dunks in the first half.

On the strength of that performance and his potential, Chad Ford told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal Lee would have been drafted had he entered his name.

"I'm excited for Marcus and think he's barely scratched the surface of what he's capable of," head coach John Calipari said.  "In addition to his athleticism and the energy level he brings, the experience he gained in the NCAA Tournament this year will be immeasurable for us next season."

Lee would go on to play key minutes in the Final Four, scoring four points and blocking a shot in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.

With Lee officially in the fold, UK's post play for 2014-15 projects to be even stronger. With draft decisions from Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress -- as well as guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison -- still on the way, Coach Cal already has forwards Cauley-Stein, Lee and Derek Willis to work with. In addition, five-star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles have already signed letters of intent.


Barker_FacebookTwitter1.jpg Drew Barker was only a junior in high school, but he had a pretty good idea how the recruiting process would play out.

Even though the Burlington, Ky., native was listening to his home state school's pitch from new head coach Mark Stoops, Barker figured he would end up elsewhere.

On April 13, 2013, Barker reached a "turning point."

"I remember going into the spring game last year and I was pretty sure South Carolina was my leader and Tennessee and Kentucky were kind of behind," Barker said. "And then I went to the spring game and I saw over 50,000 people there and just the atmosphere."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Less than a month after his visit for the annual Blue/White Spring Game -- attended by a record 50,831 fans -- Barker announced his commitment. Kentucky had its prized quarterback prospect and the momentum Stoops and his staff were building with their work on the class of 2014 went from snowball to avalanche.

"It was really eye-opening to me and all the recruits that were there because I know the majority of the recruits that were there ended up committing to us," Barker said. "So I think that had a big impact on not only myself, but everybody else that went."

Count Mikel Horton in that group as well.

The four-star running back out of West Chester, Ohio, was on the verge of committing and coming to the spring game pushed him over the edge. He gave his pledge exactly a week later.

"The atmosphere was ridiculous," Horton said. "Having that amount of fans there and especially there with my family and friends to show them that this is where I'm going to be playing and this is where I'm going to be scoring my touchdowns and getting long runs and helping out the team. It was a very humbling, life-changing experience for me as far as football. It made me appreciate it more."

For Horton, there was no substitute for getting a sneak preview of game day in Commonwealth Stadium.

"Oh man, just the college atmosphere," Horton said. "The fireworks, the screaming and the hitting and everything. I was shocked and wanted to be a part of that so much."

Dorian Hendrix had a unique perspective on the day of the spring game. Having committed three weeks prior, the linebacker from Huber Heights, Ohio, was playing recruiter, trying to convince his fellow visitors to join him at UK.

"That was actually a really important day," Hendrix said. "There were a lot of guys there who are committed to us now who weren't committed at the time. They came and they saw that same energy, that same excitement and that made them want to be a part of this whole thing. I talked to some guys and got them on board and that was a good day for UK."

In the two months after the spring game, Stoops secured 12 new commitments. All told, 20 of the 28 players who eventually signed with Kentucky attended the spring game.

"Just everything from the Cat Walk to being on the field before the game, we were sitting there, everybody's talking, like, 'Man, this is awesome,' " Barker said. "If they're doing this coming off a 2-10 season, imagine if we all come here and get a recruiting class to join everybody else who is here and start winning, imagine the support that would then come.' We were just talking about that and we thought it would be really big and that was definitely a big turning point for myself and my recruitment."

A year later, Barker, Horton and Hendrix will again be at the spring game on April 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET, but this time as players. The trio is among seven midyear enrollees who arrived on campus in January.

"I'm really looking forward to actually being on the field as a player with that kind of atmosphere," Barker said. "So it's definitely going to be awesome and I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to come in here early and have that opportunity to get on there before an actual game."

Due to construction, Commonwealth's capacity will be reduced to around 40,000, meaning last year's record attendance won't be threatened and UK is unlikely to rank in the top six nationally in attendance again. Nonetheless, a packed house would be a big deal for the players who will be uniform and those who could be a year from now.

"It's huge," Hendrix said. "It's huge for recruitment. It's huge for us. It lets us know that this community and this school are supporting us. It's huge for recruitment. You got guys coming from down south and everywhere across the country coming to see this game and they see 40,000 in the stands, it's important."

Horton, asked of the impact fans can have by attending the spring game, had an even more direct message for the Big Blue Nation.

"Why not get a ticket?" Horton said. "I'm not going to boast on UK. I'm not going to tell people something that they've heard and it has not changed, but we're a different team. And that's coming from my soul. That's coming from deep in and I wouldn't lie to the fans. We're a different team. The mentality, the physicality here is totally different.

"For this spring game, you need to get a ticket because you're going to see something different."

Tickets for UK's annual Blue/White Spring Game are available now online at Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 and in person at Ticketmaster outlets in Kentucky. Tickets are free, but there is a minimal service charge attached.

By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Part one

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Below is part two. You can read part one here.

4. Humble pie at LSU

After losing at North Carolina, Kentucky reeled off eight wins in nine games, rising to No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25. A trip to Baton Rouge, La., would bring the team and its fans crashing back to earth.

Led by Johnny O'Bryant's 29 points - on 12-of-20 shooting -- and nine rebounds, the Tigers flat-out dismantled the Cats in nearly every aspect of the game. LSU outshot UK 50.8 to 43.8 percent; the Tigers had 11 turnovers to UK's 13; LSU had 15 assists to UK's eight; LSU had 11 steals to UK's six; and the Tigers recorded 11 blocks to UK's four.

Freshman stud Jordan Mickey terrorized the Cats with his athleticism, scoring 14 points to go along with six rebounds and five blocks, and Christian County product Anthony Hickey had his way at the point guard spot, dishing out six dimes versus zero turnovers.

The Tigers maintained a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half, stretching the lead to as many as 15 points on two occasions. Only a late-game letup by the Tigers allowed UK to make the final score respectable to those who didn't watch the carnage.

"We weren't ready for the physical part of the game," Calipari said after the 87-82 loss. "We weren't ready for the energy of the game and the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball from the beginning of the game to the end. That is why they won the game."

Even though clearly upset with his team, Coach Cal wanted everyone to know that his squad was not finished growing.

"This team is in progress; it is all about the process," Cal said.  "The process we are at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it tonight."

But panic was beginning to set in among the fan base that the disappointing 2012-13 season was about to repeat itself.

5. Spiraling out of control

After the uninspiring effort at LSU, the Wildcats won seven-of-eight games, including solid wins against a good Ole Miss team, an impressive road victory over Missouri and the overtime triumph against LSU. All appeared to be defining moments - at the very least, turning points - in the season, but as is often the case with a team chock full of rookies, the good times didn't last.

Arkansas paid a visit to Rupp Arena on Feb. 27 and showed the Cats what it means to play defense, as the Razorbacks held UK to 26 made field goals on 76 shots (34.2 percent). Additionally, the Hogs forced 18 UK turnovers, and while committing 20 miscues themselves, Arkansas capitalized on the Cats' mistakes by outscoring UK 21-17 in points off turnovers.

The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In victory, Arkansas connected on 16-16 free throws, while the Cats struggled from the stripe making only 12-22 attempts. Midway through the first half, as if to affirm its terrible shooting night, UK missed eight consecutive shots, allowing the Razorbacks to build an-11 point lead.

UK battled back, though, and the tightly contested contest, which went into overtime, saw the Cats lead 57-52 with 4:43 left in regulation. But from that point forward, including the overtime period, the Hogs outscored the Cats 19-10 on their way to a 71-67 Rupp Arena win (Arkansas' first victory in Rupp since February of 1994).

"They beat us to loose balls," Coach Cal lamented after the game. "We missed 10 one-foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered. We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts (and) not executing. At one point I sat down and I would not speak to them. What are we running? 'I already told you in the timeout.'"

Kentucky's trip to South Carolina a few days later revealed a Big Blue ship quickly taking on water.

The Gamecocks came into the game sporting a 10-18 record, reason enough for Kentucky fans to believe their Cats would right the seemingly sinking ship, thwarting disaster. But UK did not respond to the bump and grind play of Carolina, instead the Wildcats sunk deeper into the abyss by once again failing to find the net with anything resembling consistency.

Making only 26.9 percent of its shots from the floor during a physical contest that was so frustrating that the Cats' coach was tossed from the ballgame, UK fell behind 51-39 with 10:23 remaining.

UK's huge 46-28 rebounding advantage could not offset the unfortunate shooting night the Wildcats experienced, and after a Randle 3-point play made the score 68-67 Carolina with 21 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks made their free throws and pulled out an improbably 72-67 shocker.

In coming back from 16 points down with 10:11 remaining, the Wildcats displayed a willingness to battle. But putting themselves in that position in the first place was Cal's cause for concern.

"After the game I told them how proud I was that they fought and got back in the game and gave themselves a chance to win," Calipari said. "But I said, 'You have to play the whole game that way.' Now, what happened early: The game was called like the old way. It was very physical -- body-checking, hip-checking -- and we thought that was an excuse to miss shots. You've got to know how the game is being called and play that way."

The setback dropped the preseason No. 1 team in the land to No. 25 in the AP poll. And yet, Aaron Harrison said after the game that Kentucky would still write "a great story."

As well all know now, that was the defining quote of the season. It seemed so unlikely at the time, but it somehow came true.

6. Starting fresh

After the late-season losses to Arkansas, South Carolina and a disastrous game in Gainesville, Fla., against Florida, Kentucky fans were not expecting much good to come out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats were in a historic free-fall, certain to land with a disappointing thud.

But running onto the Georgia Dome floor from the locker room, the Wildcats possessed a bounce in their step unseen for at least a couple of months. Was it "The Tweak" Coach Cal had talked about earlier that week? Was it just the fresh start of a new season?

Whatever the case, the energy the players exuded was palpable, as the team seemed bound together by an electrified tether.

The free-flowing Wildcat mojo was replaced with an "uh oh" once the game began, as the Tigers shot out to a 22-14 lead after seven minutes of action. This game, though, would be the beginning of something special as the Cats rode the hot hand of Young and his 17 first-half points to a 28-10 run, eventually taking a 42-32 halftime lead.

The second half, though, would test the Cats -- again.

Cutting the lead to 52-49 on an Andre Stringer layup with 11:56 left in the game, LSU was poised to break the Cats' back once again. But this time, UK responded in rousing fashion.

Over the last 12 minutes of the contest, Kentucky's freshman crushed the Tigers 35-18 on its way to a resounding, confidence-building 85-67 victory.

The Cats, at least for one game, put it all together, as Andrew Harrison dished eight assists (thanks to the tweak, which Coach Cal said was to encourage UK's point guard to look to pass more often), Randle posted a double-double with 17 points and 16 boards, and Young led the squad with 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists.

"We've been through adversity all season," Randle said after the game. "It was kind of time for us to grow up, man up and just fight through that adversity."

Apparently simplifying the UK offense, Cal seemingly took the pressure off of his players.

"We didn't run as many plays because we had to get easy baskets," Young said. "(We're) just playing basketball, something we should have been doing for a while, and something we're going to do from here on out."

The Cats had the set the stage for a postseason to remember.

Check back next for the final defining moments of the 2013-14 season.

Defense gets it done at 11th spring practice

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Head coach Mark Stoops


Before a break over Easter weekend, UK took the field for the 11th time this spring.

After stringing together a number of good practices, UK's offense took a small step back. Even so -- and particularly with the defense continuing to shine -- it was a productive Friday.

"Good energy from the defense, again, we need the offense to continue to progress," Stoops said. "Today was not our sharpest day, but we got a lot of good work in and looking forward to wrapping it up here next week and getting some good practices in next week to finish off spring."

With a handful of drops and some missed opportunities on first down during UK's team period, the offense found itself behind the chains too often. Some of the blame for that goes to the offense, but the defense also deserves credit.

"Defense made some good plays," Stoops said. "I think it's a combination, and we'll go watch the film. But it's not always, and that's what I told the defense, we had good energy and they're playing good, but it's not always because we're playing stellar. Maybe the offense is not executing like they can. It's a little combination of both."

D.J. Eliot, only considering his defense, was pleased.

"I wouldn't say spectacular, but we did some good things today," Eliot said. "We had good energy in the team period. Guys were flying around in that period, and that's good. We didn't execute early and just picked it up throughout practice."

The defense was again without Nate Willis. Stoops announced on Friday the senior cornerback will undergo surgery to address a sports hernia, which will force him to miss the next three-to-four months.

"It's always hard when you have an injury and you got to be out, because you miss all those reps," Eliot said. "That frustration sets in, but you always got to look at things on a positive note. He knows that he'll be back in time for the season, so he just has got to get the mental reps until then, and then when he comes back, he's just got to be clicking on all cylinders."

In Willis's place, Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller and J.D. Harmon have gotten the majority of the work at corner.

"So we're just kind of rotating them, and different days different guys do different things good and bad," Eliot said. "It's a long ways away, so it's tough to tell who's gonna be our guys."

Stoops hopes to make progress toward decisions at corner, as well as a number of other positions, over the final week of spring. He cited running back, defensive line and wide receiver, but quarterback is of course the position drawing the most attention.

Sorting out remaining contenders Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker is among Stoops' foremost priorities heading into next Saturday's Blue/White Spring Game.

"If we can figure it out in the last week, we will," Stoops said. "If not, we'll continue to work through it. We have time until our first game, but I like the progress we've made overall. We need to pick it up again next week and finish off this spring. Just overall improvement, continue to build depth."

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot



 

Notes: Calipari continuing to trumpet reform

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John Calipari is in the midst of a tour promoting the release of his new book this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is in the midst of a tour promoting the release of his new book this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari is not opposed to repeating himself, especially not when it comes to one-and-done/Succeed-and-Proceed.

He has had ample opportunity to get his message out this week in promoting his new book, "Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out," and didn't let it go to waste.

In doing so, Calipari was well aware his audience is split into three distinct camps.

"The haters are not changing," Calipari said. "They don't care what I say. They turn the TV off and I'm fine with that. The lovers accept whatever I say. It's all those independents out there that are looking at this in a different light and saying, 'Well.' And then the question is: Am I making sense? Is this common-sense stuff?"

At the risk of sounding like a so-called "lover," it's difficult to answer anything other than yes.

"I even think the NBA and the NCAA should get together and plan on the players' association saying, 'We're not changing,' " Calipari said. "And then I think the NCAA and the NBA should get together and say, 'How do we encourage kids to stay in school longer, which is good for you and good for us and good for kids.' "

Calipari was in a Socratic mood Thursday as he made his case for a two year-year rule and against the current baseball model.

"Would you really want to be a part of the decision that took a whole generation of ninth and 10th graders that said, 'Forget about education, you're going directly to the NBA,' when, in fact, of those 50,000, one or two may do it - maybe, maybe do it," Calipari said. "Would you really want to be that person?"

Whether the rule dictates players stay in school for one, two or three years, Calipari says it would be unwise to dismiss the educational value of top players going to college.

"The guys that say let them go out of high school don't want to coach against them," Calipari said. "It's simple as that. They don't want to coach against them. For anybody to say Brandon Knight or any of my kids have no business being on a college campus, you're old, you're grumpy, go away."

Once they are on campus, Calipari says it's the responsibility of the NCAA, schools and coaches to first put policies in place that don't penalize players for staying in school. Next, the perception that top players sticking around for longer than a season somehow means they have failed has to be eliminated.

"You cannot plan on coming into this university for one year and thinking you're going to get out," Calipari said. "If it happens, hallelujah, I'm happy for you. But if it doesn't happen, you understand, 'I'm maturing. I understand the grind. I'm physically getting better.' But it can't be me just doing it. It's gotta be everybody out there. Staying in school more than one year is not a failure."

Calipari's crusade against the one-and-done rule is only the most prominent example of his campaign to bring change to the NCAA. This week, he revealed another idea he and his wife, Ellen, presented.

"We wanted to start a fund," Calipari said. "We'll fund it; we'll put the money in. That every player that's ever played for me, whether they be at Mass, Memphis or Kentucky, can request a grant for their children's education."

After Calipari's retirement, the money remaining in the fund would go back to the three schools where he coached.

The NCAA decided not to approve the fund, according to Calipari, deeming it an extra benefit, but Coach Cal sees some of the have-vs.-have-nots attitude that has defined much of the organization's legislation beginning to disappear.

"That is what is ending," Calipari said. "It's what I talked about for the last five years. That has to end."

No rest for the weary

After one of the most trying yet rewarding seasons of his coaching career, Coach Cal, at least in theory, could have used a rest.

But in reality, the book tour that hasn't allowed him a moment's rest this week has been exactly what he needs.

"But I haven't - listen, folks, I haven't slowed down right now," Calipari said. "And it's really good."

If not for the tour, Calipari would be incessantly replaying moments from UK's national title game loss to Connecticut. All those times the Wildcats cut the Huskies' lead to one, those wouldn't quite running through his brain.

"And then I'd want to jump off a bridge," Calipari said. "So, just keep running and I'm not looking back until May 2."

Running, for Calipari, meant a Wednesday to remember.

It began with appearances on MSNBC and CNBC, then a visit of nearly two hours with President Bill Clinton over lunch. Just a few hours later, it was off to Charlotte, N.C., to watch two former players -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Chris Douglas-Roberts -- play for the playoff-bound Bobcats against Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls.

Calipari was back in Lexington on Thursday. He surely has a few more adventures ahead of him before a medically mandated break two weeks from Friday.

"I'll have my hip replaced here in town," Calipari said. "One of the best hip doctors is right here in Lexington, so I'll do it here and take a month to recuperate and try to get back."

Coach Cal shrugs off latest NBA rumor

In the hours before the national championship game, conversation about UK's quest for a ninth title was momentarily derailed by a tweet.

UK great and longtime NBA player and executive Rex Chapman, citing sources, started the rumor that Coach Cal would go to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers regardless of the outcome.

Calipari, rightfully focused on the task at hand, didn't find out until he returned to the UK locker room after the game.

"The only time I learned about it is when the game ended and then Anthony Davis and Darius (Miller) and John Wall and the guys were in there," Calipari said. "I can't remember if one of them said to me, 'You're going to Lakers.' It might have been Anthony."

He quickly defused the talk, though not without having a little fun first.

"I said, 'Come on, no, I'm not going to the Lakers,' " Calipari said. "And then I looked at him and I said, 'Unless you'll come with me.' As I joked, please. (Pause). Maybe. (Laughing)."

Though the possibility of coaching Davis, the ascendant NBA star, in L.A. is tempting, Calipari has repeated ad nauseam during a media blitz promoting his new book that he is not headed to coach the Lakers.

As for Chapman and the timing of his tweet, Calipari isn't holding any grudges.

"I haven't talked to Rex but I'm fine," Calipari said. "Look, there a couple of other rumors that I'm glad he didn't talk about on radio. It's fine. I mean, we didn't hear it, I didn't hear it."

Decisions about new assistant, summer trip not finalized

With no games to focus on, speculation has shifted to the stay-or-leave decisions of UK's underclassmen and whom Coach Cal will hire as an assistant, a vacancy created by Orlando Antigua's move to South Florida as head coach.

Calipari, busy with that whirlwind tour, is still working his way through a decision.

"Everybody's already named assistant coaches, they tell me, and I haven't gone through the process," Calipari said. "I've called some people up. I still--I have work to do but I haven't had time. I mean, I've not done--like, there's no one I've sat down and said, 'Hey, I want you to do this.' But I will."

The same goes for UK's rumored summer trip.

"We'll probably do something this summer, but I haven't made the total decision of what it'll be," Calipari said. "Probably be something to do with the World Games, trying to play teams from the World Games, which means we probably get beat up each game, because you got NBA players on every one of those teams. But it would be a good experience."

Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle are among UK's players facing early-entry decisions this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle are among UK's players facing early-entry decisions this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ten days have passed since Kentucky's final game of the season and only nine days remain before UK's remaining draft-eligible players have to make a decision on their future.

The math will tell you that there isn't a lot of time left for what figures to be six more players to make a decision before the NBA early-entry deadline, but John Calipari isn't going to rush his players.

"This is about them, not me and the program," Calipari said Thursday. "They have until the 27th (of April) to make a decision. ... I don't even know what the NCAA date is because we don't worry about it. It has nothing to do with us. The only date they have to be concerned about is the 27th, when they have to put their name in - or they don't put their name in."

Speaking to the media on Thursday as a part of his "Players First" book tour, Calipari said he spoke to NBA teams as recently as Wednesday to get information for his players so that they can make the best decision possible.

"There was information given to me that I needed to go directly to the parents, and the reason is, I don't want there to be any filter," Coach Cal said. "This is it. Happy, sad, angry, whatever, this is it. And then I told all the kids, when we met back on campus (last week), when I had the information that I had and it was pretty accurate, from what I learned yesterday, 'Whatever decision you make -- to leave, to come back -- this basketball program 50 years from now will be fine, and so will this institution. You don't make it because of me. You make it because it's right for you, whatever you do.' "

James Young was the latest - and the second Wildcat so far - to come to a decision. He announced Thursday that he will forego his sophomore season in college to enter the NBA Draft.

Earlier in the week, somewhat surprisingly, Willie Cauley-Stein announced he will be coming back for his junior year.

"He basically said, 'You know, Coach, I'm in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I'm gonna be really close to my degree. I still have to grow as a player. And we left something on the table there that I'd like to try and get.' That's a good answer for me if you want to come back," Calipari said.

Those two decisions made, six more Wildcats figure to have the options of turning pro early and will have to make a choice one way or another over the next week. They include: Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.

Randle is projected as a top-five pick if he decides to go, but he tweeted last week that he hadn't made up his mind yet. Most people expect Lee to return, but his performance in the Michigan game coupled his freakish potential means he would likely get picked up by a team if he decided to leave.

The other four guys, including the Harrison twins, are anyone's guess right now. Calipari said he had "no idea" when a reporter asked Thursday if Andrew and Aaron Harrison were coming back.

All that's on Coach Cal's mind right now is getting his players the information, letting them make a decision and then supporting it. He won't advise them to come back if they are doing it just because it's easier.

"What you have to do is accept their decision, understand it's been well thought out, they've gotten the information (and) they know the downside because I gave it to them," Calipari said. "They see the upside. I have to remind them of the downside of what could happen. And when they make that choice, you gotta live with it. It's them; it's their families."

Should some of the current question marks decide to return, Calipari said it would make his job different than it has been the last couple of years when he has coached some of the youngest teams in college basketball. But he didn't' sound worried Thursday that he would have too many players with too few opportunities to play.

"Our young players coming in wanted kids to come back," Coach Cal said. "They were calling kids and telling them to come back. So it's not any of that. Someone would say, 'Well, would someone leave because of who you have coming in?' Oh, it'll be easier against those guys in the NBA than a high school guy? What are you nuts? It has nothing to do with that. It becomes what is best? What is best for that family? You may look at it and say that's ridiculous, but you don't live their life. You haven't done what they've done."

With the potential for some players to come back, the coaching staff isn't actively recruiting anyone else for next year. The Cats have already signed four in the 2014 class and have three other scholarships accounted for with the known returns of Cauley-Stein, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins.

Should a few more declare for the draft and spots open up, the staff would hit the recruiting trail again.

"There are some names out there ... and I would imagine there's players out there waiting to see: 'If these guys leave, I'm going because I'll be able to step in,' " Coach Cal said.

Calipari said he's talked to 19 NBA general managers since the season ended last week. He asked each of his players on the bus ride to the airport after the championship game if they wanted helping exploring their NBA possibilities, and all but one - a player Calipari said is a potential first-round draft pick -- said yes.

"So I called him back in and said, 'You need to get with your mother and we need to talk about this, because I need you to know what you're passing on by coming back,' " Calipari said. "What I told he and his mother: 'I got to live with myself.' I told him, 'I want you to come back. I think you need to come back. But you need to know what's out there.' And so I've had to walk through that."

Calipari admitted that what his team was able to do in the NCAA Tournament boosted some draft stocks that were starting to decline near the end of the regular season.

"Kenny Payne says this all the time: You guys don't understand, people want winning players. So winning matters. It does," Coach Cal said. "If our team had gotten in the NCAA Tournament last year and we had advanced, it would've been different for some of those guys. Just how it is. Winning matters, and that's why you gotta keep convincing them, 'You gotta do this together. You gotta give up some of your game.' "

Cauley-Stein undergoes surgery on injured ankle

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Willie Cauley-Stein recently underwent surgery on an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final three games of UK's tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein recently underwent surgery on an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final three games of UK's tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Riding around campus the last couple of days on a motorized cart, it's obvious the injury to Willie Cauley-Stein's left ankle was more than just a sprain.

John Calipari said as much Thursday during a press conference for his new book, "Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out," when he confirmed that Cauley-Stein went under the knife recently to fix the injury.

"He did have surgery," Calipari said. "The best doctor in the world to do it, kind of like we did with Nerlens (Noel)."

Calipari expects Cauley-Stein to be off the motorized cart and back in the gym in a "couple months."

"He'll be fine," Coach Cal said.

As for who did the surgery and what exactly the injury was that knocked Cauley-Stein out for most of the last four games of the NCAA Tournament, Calipari wasn't disclosing that information Thursday.

"They got knee guys, they got ankle guys, they got shoulder people, they got elbow people. (The doctor who did the surgery) was with the best that there is in the world to have the thing done," Coach Cal said. "And it was a procedure that is done a lot."

Whether it was the ankle injury that would prevent him from working out for NBA teams, falling a win short of a national championship, or tasting a Final Four but not being able to play in it, Cauley-Stein shocked a lot of people earlier in the week when he announced he was returning for his junior season at Kentucky.

Among the surprised was his college head coach.

"Raise your hand if you were stunned that he said he was coming back," Calipari said as he raised his own hand.

Calipari said he never talked to Cauley-Stein about coming back to school. He said their only conversation was about the first time he visited Cauley-Stein at his high school and how amazing it was that a kid who was involved in just about every sport but basketball could now be a first-round pick after just two years.

"Can you imagine?" Coach Cal said. "And that was our talk."

It was Cauley-Stein who approached Calipari about returning.

"He basically said, 'You know, Coach, I'm in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I'm gonna be really close to my degree. I still have to grow as a player. And we left something on the table there that I'd like to try and get.' That's a good answer for me if you want to come back," Calipari said.

By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Here's part one:

1. Measuring up to Michigan State

The season began with Wildcat victories over overmatched UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but the contest fans and pundits alike pointed to as an early test of UK's painfully young squad was a tilt with the experienced, talented and supremely well-coached Michigan State Spartans.

The preseason No. 2 team in the nation (the Spartans received only three fewer preseason Top 25 Associated Press votes than the Cats), Sparty sported experience, size and a willingness to "get physical" with their opponents.

Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's youth, though, responded to MSU's physical nature and battled the veteran Spartans for the full 40 minutes in Chicago's United Center (big-time Big 10 territory). Down 44-32 at the half, Coach Cal implored his team to keep fighting.

"I told them at half, 'Dudes, you're down six baskets. That's amazing. You should be down 20, 22 points right now. Now the question will be do you want to try to win the game,' " Calipari said. "And they did."

Showing all-important heart, the Wildcats battled through the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second half, finding themselves down 59-46 with 11:33 left in the game, but UK rallied down the stretch, belying its youth and inexperience.

Julius Randle, continuing his season-opening streak of double-doubles, responded to MSU's size with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while James Young tossed in 19. Both players' performances gave UK fans reason to believe in blue even though UK's rally came up short in the 78-74 loss.

Along with the Cats misfiring on 16 of 36 free throws, it was the upperclassman guard duo of Keith Appling (22 points) and Gary Harris (20 points) who doomed the Cats with their heady, steady play.

After the tight contest, Coach Cal uttered what would become a familiar refrain.

"The biggest thing is, if you don't do this together, you will not win, you'll never be a special team," Calipari said. "So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."

2. Reality checks to Baylor and UNC

After reeling off five straight victories, the Cats embarked on a made-for-TV event as No. 11 Kentucky traveled to Arlington, Texas to take on the No. 20 Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys (and host of the 2014 Final Four).

In a game that was delayed for more than an hour because of the UK women's team's four-overtime victory over the Baylor Lady Bears, the Wildcats came out of the locker room ready to battle. And battle UK did ... for about 26 minutes of game time.

Leading 48-39 with 14:06 left in the contest, UK's youthful squad became complacent while Baylor ratcheted up its intensity, holding the Cats to 35.0 percent second-half shooting. Over the final 14 minutes of action, the Bears had Kentucky on its heels, outscoring UK 28-14 while pulling off the upset.

"I would hope they'd have more fight to win the game," Coach Cal said after the game. "They didn't. Baylor had way more fight than we had."

Although UK connected on 8 of 17 trey attempts and Randle posted 16 points and eight rebounds, Baylor turned the tables on Kentucky in the paint, netting 38 points in the lane compared to 26 for the much bigger Wildcats.

It was UK's ability to overcome adversity, though, which had Cal's ire up after the game.

"As soon as this thing got rough, and the first two raindrops hit - it's like a front-running team," said Coach Cal, who was so frustrated after the game that he left the news conference the first time a reporter asked one of the players a question. "The raindrops hit, we stop fighting. We start looking for excuses and heads are down. That's what we are right now."

After a nice bounce-back win over Boise State in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the enigmatic North Carolina Tar Heels.

Kentucky, playing like the young team it was, committed 17 turnovers, giving UNC a 22-13 advantage in points off turnovers for the game. Once again, making matters worse, Kentucky went cold from the charity stripe, making only 29 of 43 free throws. UK's big men were thoroughly outplayed by their Tar Heel counterparts, being outscored by a 49-24 margin and allowing North Carolina to connect on 48.2 percent of its shots.

Calipari lamented his team's concern for personal statistics over team accomplishments after the 82-77 setback, a loss which put UK's record at 8-3 and a No. 19 AP ranking.

"We're not a good team because our emotion is based on individual play instead of our team play," Coach Cal said. "I'm going to keep coaching them. We're going to keep getting better. We're going to try to point things out. But it doesn't matter how bad I want them to get it, they gotta want it. They gotta want to get this. They gotta want to understand this."

3. A much-needed win over an archrival

In what is always the highlight of the regular-season schedule for UK fans, the Cats and Cards hooked up in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28 with more than pride on the line.

Neither team's résumé had what could be considered a marquee win, and with UK dropping like an anchor down the polls after losing to Baylor and UNC, even the most ardent of the Wildcat faithful were in need of a boost up the ladder of confidence.

What Kentucky did in the greatest rivalry game the sport has to offer is what it had failed to do in its three losses: finish the game strong.

With Randle playing only 21 minutes due to cramps (but dominating the opening half with 17 points) and missing the entire final 11 minutes of the game, Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison stepped up their games, particularly in the final nine minutes.

With the scored tied at 53 and 8:45 remaining, Kentucky ended the game by outscoring U of L 20-13, with the UK guard trio accounting for 17 of UK's 20 points.

"This team is becoming a good team," Calipari said."We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."

Coach Cal also credited the team's tough schedule as preparing his squad for a game of this magnitude.

"One of the things I told them prior to the game, what prepared us for this game was playing Michigan State, playing Providence, playing Boise (State), playing Baylor, playing North Carolina on the road, playing Belmont," Calipari said. "That prepared us for this game.  And so as much as I hate to say, every game I'm coaching is like a war, this team needed that."

Check back Friday for part two.

Jalen Whitlow announced his decision to transfer on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow announced his decision to transfer on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown knew the conversation wouldn't be easy.

They had decided to narrow their options at quarterback to Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. The next step was to tell Jalen Whitlow.

"When you decide you want to coach, that's not something they go over," Brown said after practice on Wednesday. "It's never fun. It's not something that I enjoy. It's really one of the worst aspects."

The discussion happened in two parts on Tuesday afternoon and later in the evening. Stoops and Brown approached it the best way they knew how.

"I told him I cared about him, which I do," Brown said. "I want him to do what he thinks is best for him with regard to our team. But I also want to be up front and honest with him."

Honesty, in this case, came in telling Whitlow he was the odd man out at quarterback, but also explaining there would be an opportunity to play wide receiver at UK, if he chose to. Whitlow -- who started eight games in 2013 and accounted for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns -- decided transferring was the best course of action.

"We were in a situation where, once we told him where we're working it out with quarterback, and asked him to play another position (and) if he'd be open to that, he decided that it'd be in his best interest to go somewhere else and play QB," Stoops said. "That's where his heart is. That's what he wants to do. I understand that."

Both the coaches and Whitlow, of course, are disappointed in the result. Stoops and Brown would have loved to have an athlete as dynamic as Whitlow at wide out, while Whitlow wanted to win the quarterback job.

That doesn't mean there are hard feelings on either side.

"I appreciate the University of Kentucky and what the coaching staff and administration have done for me," Whitlow said in a release announcing he will transfer after finishing the spring semester. "I also thank the community and the fan support I have received here. I wish the coaches and my teammates the best of luck."

The same goes for everyone involved with the UK program.

"I appreciate his contributions, I really do," Brown said. "Last year was a tough year. It wouldn't have mattered who played quarterback. It was going to be a difficult season and he weathered some things, some adversity so I'm proud of him for that."

Now, UK moves on.

Stoops and Brown both cited consistency throwing the football as the reason they have narrowed the contenders at quarterback. Last season, Whitlow gave UK the best chance to win. With the way Towles and Phillips have improved, the addition of Barker, the talented freshman, and Maxwell Smith recovering from an injury, that's changed.

"This is not a negative on Jalen," Brown said. "The other three guys are performing well. I feel good about where we're at with the quarterback position. Now we gotta go do it with the lights on, but Saturday, in a scrimmage or game atmosphere, that was the best that any quarterbacks have looked since I've been here for a calendar year."

In that scrimmage, Towles and Barker were particularly impressive.

Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made an offseason commitment to refining his mechanics. The results showed as he made a number of throws that showed why he was so highly touted when he arrived in Lexington.

"He has made tremendous strides," Brown said. "Now he's got a long way to go, Patrick does. He's still making some decisions that aren't correct and making some negative plays, but he's got tremendously better, there's no question."

Barker, meanwhile, is hardly looking like a player who went home to Burlington, Ky., a few weeks ago to attend his high school prom and has only 10 practices under his belt in UK's no-huddle attack after playing a different system at Conner High School.

"I'm not surprised because he had big talent," Brown said. "What I am excited about is the maturity that he's shown. He's shown great maturity through this. We've thrown a lot at him. It's tough."

Brown called the competition "fluid," while Stoops said UK is still "working through" the process of settling on a quarterback.

"It's hard to get four and five guys reps," Stoops said. "Listen: I want to move on. I want there to be a clear-cut winner or a starter, or at least one and two, so we can start narrowing down reps."

The first step was cutting it down to three.

"That's why we made the decision," Brown said. "We gotta get it down to a manageable number. We're hoping to do that going into fall camp. I think that was part of the issues we had last year, is we let it drag out too far we didn't get enough quality reps for Jalen or Max."

Head coach Mark Stoops


Offensive coordinator Neal Brown


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Logan Salow picked up the win against Louisville, tossing 3.2 shutout innings. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Logan Salow picked up the win against Louisville, tossing 3.2 shutout innings. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Gary Henderson stepped into a horde of media members waiting to talk about UK's season sweep of Louisville.

First, he was asked to reflect on the importance of the midweek win. Naturally, the next question about his two freshman hurlers, Logan Salow and Zack Brown.

Henderson had to look to the scoreboard before he could get into his answer.

"That's six and--what is it, five? No, six innings of freshman pitching," Henderson said. "That's significant on the road, there's question about that.

Not just six innings, but six innings of shutout ball as No. 19 UK (24-13) took down archrival and ninth-ranked Louisville (27-9), 4-2, on Tuesday.

"It's a game we want to win every year, just like they do," Henderson said. "It's a rivalry game. It's not more important than a league game. I get that every year, twice a year. ... It's always good win a tight game on the road because it gives your kids confidence going forward."

No one's confidence will benefit more than Salow and Brown's.

Salow had an idea he was going to be appearing against Louisville, given how shorthanded the Wildcats are in the bullpen at present, but it happened earlier than expected.

Starter Ryne Combs departed after allowing the first four Cardinals to reach in the bottom of the third, the last of which via run-scoring walk. The score then tied at 1-all and Louisville threatening to take command, Henderson turned to Salow with a simple directive to pound the strike zone.

He did just that.

"All Logan did was throw strikes and that was it and that's all we needed to do," Henderson said. "We needed to throw strikes and if we did that we were going to play enough defense behind it to make it work."

Salow, picking up the win in just the 14th appearance of his young career, admitted he felt some pressure to eat innings given the circumstances.

"But not too much because I know the guys behind me are going to do a great job playing defense," Salow said. "I know we are going to score runs when I get in the dugout. There is a little pressure, but not as much as you'd think."

Salow showed no signs of that pressure, needing just two batters to retire the side on a fielder's choice and a strikeout-caught stealing double play.

UK down just 2-1 when it could have been much worse, the Cats quickly retook the lead by taking advantage of a couple Cardinal miscues with Ka'ai  Tom RBI grounder that was misplayed and a walk by JaVon Shelby that scored the go-ahead and game-winning run.

From there, Salow went to work. He lasted a career-long 3.2 innings, allowing five hits and no walks. He struck out three and 36 of his 63 pitches were strikes.

He departed with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, giving way to Brown with runners on first and second. After issuing a walk to Logan Taylor, Brown coaxed a Sutton Whiting foul out down the left-field line.

Combined, Brown and Salow stranded five Cardinals in scoring position for the game.

"That's baseball for you," catcher Micheal Thomas said. "It's a situation you want to be in and a situation you want to succeed in, which they both did very well tonight. For them two to come out here and pitch the way they did, it's a huge step forward for our bullpen."

Brown has been making his share of steps in the right direction of late, with his third consecutive scoreless appearance coming on Tuesday before Kyle Cody replaced him in the ninth and finished off the save.

"Zack Brown is getting better, I've mentioned that a couple of times," Henderson said.

It isn't some complex mechanical fix driving that improvement either.

"I think just a mindset," Brown said. "Just coming in and being confident and thinking that I'm going to succeed. And that's exactly what I've done."

Given the quality of the opponent, Tuesday felt like the kind of game that will be played in June. Salow and Brown, if they pitch the way they did against U of L, will be very valuable if UK reaches that point, but the Cats aren't thinking that way just yet.

"I think we are right where we want to be," Thomas said. "I don't think we want to get too far ahead of ourselves at this point in the season. ... We definitely have some areas we can tighten up and get better, but for the most part I think we are doing a good job of getting better every day."

Senior Emily Gaines is batting .427 and slugging .707 -- both team highs -- this season. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Senior Emily Gaines is batting .427 and slugging .707 -- both team highs -- this season. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
From opening day onward, UK softball has been among the nation's elite. The Wildcats won their first 12 games and have been ranked in the top 10 for much of the season.

But over the last month, a new player has emerged for Rachel Lawson's team. Primarily a pinch hitter through her first three-plus seasons, senior outfielder and London, Ky., native Emily Gaines has become one of UK's top performers.

In fact, she's been so good that Graham Hays of espnW.com did a story on her hot streak and her entire UK career.

The player who had more hits in high school than anyone else in state history went without a single one as a freshman. She saw a few more at-bats in each of the subsequent two seasons but finished her junior year with 18 career hits.

"At the end of the first couple of years, I thought she was going to quit for sure," Lawson said. "I didn't want her to, but a lot of times in D-I, and in college athletics, it comes down to playing time. And she wasn't getting the playing time that I know she had wanted and she had hoped for."

Suffice to say, both options occurred to Gaines.

"They were kind of in the back of my mind," she said. "I guess with anyone that would kind of be in the back of your mind. But I really wanted to stick it out, and I knew I could do it if I just stuck with it and worked harder and kept working. I'm a Kentucky girl, I've grown up in Kentucky, and it's just every little girl's dream to grow up and play for Kentucky.

"I wanted to stick with it and see what I could do."

Lawson said she saw a difference in Gaines in fall practice, a new confidence that carried through winter workouts and into the season. Be that as it may, the senior still spent the first three weeks of the season in a familiar role, pinch hitting if she appeared in the box score at all. Then she hit a two-out, walk-off home run, the first home run of her college career, to beat Eastern Kentucky in a start on March 1. She started once the following weekend in the team's first SEC series and all three games the weekend after that.

She hasn't been out of the starting lineup much since.

Since Gaines became a regular starter on Feb. 28, UK is 23-6, including an ongoing seven-game winning streak as the Cats prepare to host Southeastern Conference foe Arkansas this weekend.

For more on Gaines, make sure to check out Hays' complete story.

Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Minutes after Kentucky's national championship game loss, Willie Cauley-Stein spelled out the decision in front of him.

Long thought to likely choose to pursue a lifelong dream and become a first-round NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein gave fans pause when he spoke of the pull to return.

This, clearly, was a person who loved playing basketball at UK.

"It's the best thing," Cauley-Stein said on April 7. "It's the best thing that's probably ever happened to me, is coming to Kentucky. That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star."

If Cauley-Stein felt like a rock star before, he probably feels like a Beatle on Monday night after he tweeted the news that he will come back for his junior season.

"I'm proud to say I'm coming back for my junior year," Cauley-Stein said. "I still have an empty spot to fulfill and in no rush to leave the best fans in the USA!

ESPN's Chad Ford had him pegged as the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft before news of his decision broke, but Cauley-Stein wasn't ready to leave Lexington. Between his academics and the chance to make another special NCAA Tournament run, there was too much pulling him back.

"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree," Cauley-Stein said in a release. "Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year, while playing in front of the best fans in the nation."

Prior to an injury in a Sweet 16 win over Louisville that relegated him to a cheerleading role, Cauley-Stein was averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. The 106 blocks the 7-footer totaled as a sophomore are the second most in single-season UK history. He will need 103 blocks in 2014-15 to become the leading shot blocker in school history.

"I'm happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family," head coach John Calipari said. "Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards."

In the short term, Cauley-Stein's return assures UK of having one of the nation's most imposing frontcourts yet again.

Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee have not yet formally announced their draft intentions, but UK will have no trouble fielding forwards and centers regardless. Derek Willis is set to return for his sophomore season, while 7-footer Karl Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles give Coach Cal another pair of gifted incoming freshmen. Both are consensus five-star players in the class of 2014.

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UK continued spring practice on Monday, building on a solid Saturday scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK continued spring practice on Monday, building on a solid Saturday scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Two days removed from a scrimmage he called UK's best day so far this spring, Mark Stoops was singing much the same tune after a Monday practice moved inside due to rain.

The Wildcats, according to Stoops, didn't let the momentum built on Saturday go to waste.

"It was good to get out there today and put another good practice together," Stoops said. "I thought Saturday, like I said, that was one of our better days. I felt like we backed it up with a pretty good day today. We're starting to move forward, get a little bit better in each phase of the game."

Stoops didn't get into details, but his evaluation of the scrimmage was no different after viewing tape.

"I just felt like it was just better football," Stoops said. "As the head coach, you're not just worried about one side, one position group or anything like that and obviously I just felt like there was more quality football being played."

This time a year ago, it was tape from Kentucky's annual Blue-White Spring Game Stoops and his staff were watching. Now, UK still has two weeks of spring practice left. That delayed schedule is no accident.

"We went into spring ball late so we could really have some to lift and put on some weight and get stronger," Stoops said. "I feel like that's paying off."

Benefiting from a long winter in UK's High Performance program, the Wildcats entered the spring bigger, stronger and faster. Stoops has known that all along, but he got a reminder of his team's progress from a special practice guest on Monday.

Defensive line guru Pete Jenkins -- a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, LSU and USC -- is continuing an annual spring tradition of observing Stoops' team and came away impressed by the difference between the team he watched Monday and the one he saw a year ago.

"Sometimes when you see it every day you want to make those steps faster, but he noticed it and told me it's a much different team, better-looking team, looks like we're more physical and all that," Stoops said. "So it's good to hear that from somebody that spends a lot of time going to a lot of spring practices and been around the block."

The positive feedback is nice, but the real reason Jenkins -- who also coached UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh at Auburn -- is spending time in Lexington is to be a resource as Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot look to develop the same kind of dominant line play Florida State had.

"It's something we take great pride in," Stoops said. "It's something we did at Florida State. The better you play up front, the better you're going to be. It starts up there. I think Coach Brumbaugh does a great job of developing those guys. We got a long way to go with some young guys, but that's key for us."

The road may be long, but Stoops believes the Cats are on the right track.

"We're battling," Stoops said. "We're getting better. We've got a few young guys in there with Regie (Meant) getting better. But Mike Douglas is battling, doing a good job and Melvin's (Lewis) getting better, so we're improving."

Of course, the bookends of UK's defensive line are ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Both continue to draw rave reviews for their play and leadership, but even the two seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft have room for growth.

"I think with Bud it's his versatility, and making sure he's getting enough quality reps to continue to progress with his hand in the dirt as a great D-linemen, and then being able to get him some snaps on his feet and doing some other things and being versatile with Bud," Stoops said. "That's a matter of keep on getting reps there. With Z, you can never get enough reps. You're always getting better."

Video: UK football's second spring scrimmage

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UK had its best day of the spring on Saturday at a scrimmage. Check out the video above to see some of the action.

If that gets you excited about football, make sure to get your Spring Game tickets. Only 12 more days.

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Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In a perfect world for UK baseball, Chandler Shepherd would have made his regular weekend start. He would have avoided the forearm laceration that sidelined him on Saturday and Dylan Dwyer would have started on Tuesday against Morehead State.

Instead, Dwyer was pressed into action.

The circumstances under which Dwyer made his first-career Southeastern Conference start may not have been ideal, but he made the best of the situation.

"What you really hope when a kid gets an opportunity, whether it's playing defense in the ninth inning, a pinch hit or his first start in SEC play, is that he maximizes it and forces you to give him more opportunity," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And that's what you hope and that's what he did."

With UK on a two-game losing streak and in need of a Saturday-night win to even a crucial league series with Missouri, Dwyer stepped up. He tossed 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk against a Tiger lineup that touched up the Wildcats for eight runs just a day earlier.

"I was just planning on attacking," said Dwyer, who found out Wednesday he would be making his SEC starting debut. "My approach was to go in there and attack, keep the ball low and let them hit on the ground, let my defense work for me."

Behind Dwyer, UK (23-12, 7-7 SEC) topped Missouri (16-17, 5-9 SEC), 12-0. Five different Cats had two RBI, led by A.J. Reed, who got the scoring going with a two-run home run -- his NCAA-leading 14th of the season -- in the fifth. Reed now has homers in five straight SEC games, making him the first player in the modern era of UK baseball to accomplish the feat.

"Especially in our conference, guys are going to come at you and it's just a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it," Reed said. "Like I said, right now I'm doing a pretty good job of that and not missing those pitches."

Reed narrowly missed out on a second home run, with his sky-scraping seventh-inning fly ball losing steam at the warning track.

"It's pretty impressive," Henderson said. "He's seeing it good right now, taking good swings and even when he swings and misses and chases a pitch he doesn't get out of his game, it doesn't speed up on him and he's at a good spot right now."

The final score would have been even more lopsided had Reed's fly ball left Cliff Hagan Stadium, but don't be fooled into thinking Dwyer (4-1,  coasted through his outing with a big lead. He traded scoreless frames with Missouri's John Miles through the first four innings, with UK not breaking the 0-0 tie until Reed's blast in the bottom of the fifth.

"You lose Friday night and you don't score until the fifth, there it is," Henderson said. "And that's what it is and, yeah, he did (pitch in some high-stress situations). Got out of a couple of jams where they could have scored first, but didn't and really proud of him. Solid effort. He's growing up."

Dwyer sustained the momentum built in his last start, when he overcame early struggles to pick up the win as the Cats topped rival Louisville on April 1.

"The U of L start, I learned what I did wrong and I knew I had to come in here this time and fix it," Dwyer said. "I thought I came out well, kept the ball down and let my defense back me up. There was a bunch of great plays."

The best of those plays came from Austin Cousino, who fired a strike from center field on a single by Dylan Kelly to throw out Logan Pearson and preserve the shutout and UK's 3-0 lead. The play, which ended the sixth inning, drew the most emotional reaction of the game from Dwyer.

"That's the biggest play of the night right there," Dwyer said. "After we put up a three-spot and then he guns them out, we put up a zero right there and all the momentum goes to us and that just kills their momentum."

Any remaining momentum in the Missouri dugout was eliminated by a nine-run bottom of the sixth when Max Kuhn delivered one of his four hits and the Cats capitalized on three Tiger errors.

The crowd enjoyed the offensive explosion, but Dwyer's night will likely prove much more significant. The left-handed sophomore is exactly the kind of arm the 12th-ranked Cats will need to advance in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, which means his budding confidence is likely to pay dividends down the road.

"Having these starts like this is definitely good for experience and getting me ready for the postseason because that time is going to be time to have four starters ready," Dwyer said.

UK is within striking distance of first place in the SEC in spite of operating at less than full strength at the mound. In addition to Shepherd's injury, key reliever Kyle Cody is battling forearm tightness and has not yet pitched this weekend.

If the Cats can get Shepherd and Cody back and healthy and Dwyer pitching like he did on Saturday, they could be playing into June.

"Those are the things that are going to allow us to keep winning and do well once we get to the postseason," Henderson said.


Offensive coordinator Neal Brown


Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot



UK has best day of spring at second scrimmage

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It was a rare scrimmage for Kentucky football.

Mark Stoops didn't leave the scrimmage -- UK's second of the spring -- thinking one side of the ball had the better of the action and wondering what had gone wrong with the other.

Instead, Stoops came away believing neither the offense nor defense had won the tug-of-war in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.

"That's why it's hard for me, because if one side does well I'm disappointed in the other," Stoops said. "But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better."

That kind of give-and-take is exactly what Stoops is looking for. As a result, UK had its best overall day of the spring, representing a vast improvement from last Saturday's scrimmage. Stoops opted to cancel Friday's practice to focus on preparation for Saturday and the Wildcats took advantage.

"That's maybe why I was a little frustrated (after the last scrimmage): looked a little bit sloppy," Stoops said. "But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was even more positive in his evaluation,

"Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere - the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we've executed," Brown said. "What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year."

Naturally, much of that has to do with quarterback play.

Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are splitting time as the battle for the starting position continues with Maxwell Smith recovering from a shoulder injury. Stoops does not yet have a timetable for making a decision, but Brown did say he wants to get it done sooner than a season ago.

The important thing right now is Brown knows UK will be improved at quarterback in 2014, no matter who wins the job.

"The thing I'm pleased about is they're all much, much better," Brown said. "We're better. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."

Barker -- the highly touted midyear enrollee -- is the lone signal caller who was not on campus last year, but there were moments when he could have fooled Brown.

"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have known he was a high school senior," Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."

Barker was hardly the only one of the four to impress. Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made a handful of throws that drew praise from both Stoops and Brown while Whitlow and Phillips each had their moments as UK's offense did not commit a turnover.

"I think all of them stood out," sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said. "That's gonna be the coaches' call. They got a handful, I can tell you that, because to me all of them looked great. All of them was competing, completing passes. Just the whole group of guys looked good today."

It helps that the quarterbacks are surrounded by a group of talented running backs and a receiving corps improving by the day in spite of battling some bumps and bruises.

"The young guys did some good things," Stoops said. "Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn't come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good. I think (Ryan) Timmons. Timmons is always -- he's been solid."

The offense had only to contend with the defense's base packages. Installing wrinkles is for later.

"We weren't trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

As expected, senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith shined. Beyond his two building blocks, Eliot saw one fresh face and two more familiar ones stand out.

"A.J. Stamps, again, did some good things," Eliot said. "I was pleased with some his effort. And Jason Hatcher did some good things. I was pleased with some of the things he did. I saw some good plays by J.D. Harmon just initially. And after we watch the film we'll be able be more detailed on that."

Stamps, a junior-college transfer, appears poised to contribute immediately in the secondary in spending most of his time at safety after playing corner at East Mississippi Community College.

"A.J. Stamps is making a pretty good impact on our defense, giving us a better balanced look," linebacker Khalid Henderson said. "A more versatile safety back there."

Harmon, meanwhile, has added important depth at cornerback after sitting out last season and Hatcher is taking steps forward in his first college spring after playing as a freshman in 2013.

"You know, at any sport, any position, it's hard to come in and play as a freshman," Eliot said. "And so now we're seeing a big jump in Jason because he's a sophomore and I'm really liking the progress that he's making. He's grown up, not only on the football field, but in any natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore he's done that as well."

With those individual performances and the way UK continues to come together as a team in mind, Stoops has plenty of reason for optimism.

"We feel better," Stoops said. "At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we're running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you're getting ones, twos and threes. Already in the spring, you're already a little bit thin if you don't have your whole group here. So it's sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We're definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We're getting there, getting better."

Live blog: Men's tennis vs. South Carolina

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UK is ranked No. 13 in the latest Directors' Cup standings, well ahead of the pace set by last year's record No. 25 finish. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK is ranked No. 13 in the latest Directors' Cup standings, well ahead of the pace set by last year's record No. 25 finish. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A season ago, UK Athletics set a record by finishing in the top 25 of Directors' Cup standings for the first time in school history.

Now, UK is poised to blow that record-setting performance out of the water.

Kentucky ranks 13th in the latest Learfield Sports Directors' Cup standings on the strength of strong finishes by men's basketball, rifle, women's indoor track and field and women's basketball. Also scoring points among winter sports were men's and women's swimming and diving and men's indoor track and field.

UK currently ranks second among all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, trailing only No. 6 Florida, and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state, with Louisville coming in at No. 20.

Looking ahead, UK appears to have a good chance of maintaining its current ranking or even improving on it. UK will add points from gymnastics' finish at NCAA Regionals when standings are tabulated on April 24 and potentially even more as spring sports play out.

The women's outdoor track and field team currently checks in at No. 5 in the polls after finishing ninth at NCAA Indoor Championships, while the men are No. 24. Baseball, softball and men's tennis are all ranked in the top 15, while women's tennis is No. 28 and both golf teams are in contention for NCAA berths.

If those teams perform as well as expected, UK could be in line to meet Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 of Directors' Cup standings by the year 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK has won 11 of the 15 conference or national titles needed to meet Barnhart's goal and has reached his threshold of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in three straight semesters.

It's also worth mentioning that UK is faring well in Capitol One Cup standings, tying for seventh in men's standings with 41 points and coming in 37th in women's standings.

All in all, 2013-14 is shaping up to be a year to remember for UK Athletics.


The Kentucky softball team tallied a 9-1 win over Wright State and a 10-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in a mid-week series that served many purposes in the midst of a grueling SEC slate.

The Wildcats easily could have overlooked the two games, sandwiched between a home series against Texas A&M and a three-game set at Ole Miss. Instead, they turned in back-to-back run-rule efforts to keep the momentum going from one conference series to the next.

"It says a lot about our team's focus," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We had a certain game plan going into the two games, and each player went out there and did their job and executed what we were trying to do, so it really says a lot about their focus and their ability to keep working towards going deep in the postseason."

Kentucky had won four of its last five heading into Tuesday's game, and the focus never wavered.

UK scored 19 runs and allowed 29 base runners in eight total innings at the plate. In the circle, three Wildcat hurlers allowed one run, six hits and notched 12 strikeouts in 10 total innings.

Aside from earning a pair of wins to boost their record to 33-8, Rachel Lawson was happy to see the Wildcats work on improving parts of their game.

"I think we were working on hitting certain pitches, instead of taking them, and I think that was good," Lawson said. "Each girl knew what her job was, what her role was, and she was able to execute, so that was great. It was also nice to put some players into positions that I believe they are going to play this weekend, which they didn't get to do last weekend, just to make them a little bit more comfortable."

Another benefit of the two-game set was getting a number of underclassmen valuable playing experience. In Wednesday's contest, freshman Breanne Ray launched her first career home run.

"It was awesome," Ray said about getting the opportunity to play today. "When Coach Lawson told me I was in the lineup, I was extra excited for today. I just wanted to show my team that I had it in me."

Ray certainly had it in her to lead off the third inning. A shot to right center was the outfielder's first home run as a Wildcat and just her second career hit. 

"I couldn't stop smiling, to be honest," Ray said. "I was so happy. Then all my teammates were there to greet me, and they made me feel even better."

"She is a great hitter and we're expecting great things from her in the future," Lawson said. "The fact that she was able to sit on her pitch and drive it over the wall says a lot about how mature she is mentally. I just love how she was able to take advantage of the opportunity."

The Wildcats, now winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, look to keep the momentum going on the road when they travel to Ole Miss for a three-game set April 11-13.


Cedric Kauffmann saw how the match was playing out.

With No. 1 Ohio State in town and UK out to a 1-0 lead in doubles, he watched as Alejandro Gomez and Beck Pennington were poised for straight-set wins on courts two and three that would put the Wildcats within one point of a match win.

Kauffmann recognized there was a good chance it would all be decided by his best player, Tom Jomby.

"We had to win some third sets for us to win this match, so I told Tom, 'I think it's going to come down to you,' " Kauffmann said.

Kauffmann was right.

Jomby, the nation's No. 13 singles player, had fallen to No. 9 Peter Kobelt in the first set, but Kauffmann challenged him to hone his focus with the match potentially on the line. He won the second set, 6-3, setting up an opportunity for Jomby to win it for the Cats in the third.

He did just that, dominating the set and giving No. 14 UK (17-7, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) its fourth win over a top-ranked team in school history and first since 1997.

"They're always very, very tough to beat," Kauffmann said of Ohio State. "They're always fit. They're always well-coached, so we know it was going to take everybody in the lineup to beat Ohio State to play well."

Accordingly, UK got contributions from everywhere.

In doubles, Pennington and Gomez rallied from a 5-0 deficit to win a tiebreaker. Ryuji Hirooka and Nils Ellefsen followed with another tie-breaking win in No. 3 doubles. In singles, Gomez and Pennington finished those straight-set victories.

But as Kauffmann foretold, it came down to Jomby.

The senior is in the home stretch of his UK career. With his final regular-season home matches coming up this weekend, Kauffmann has seen a different level of focus from Jomby after a late-March lapse.

"I thought he did a really good job in January, February," Kauffmann said. "After Georgia (on March 21), I think he went away for 10 days, two weeks. Maybe a little tired. Maybe he was watching too much basketball late night. I think he bounced back tonight with his nerves a little bit so I'm very happy for him."

Jomby won't have to won't long to sustain it, as UK will host Morehead State at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday, South Carolina on Friday and Florida and Murray State on Sunday.

"We'll take it one match at a time," Kauffmann said. "We'll take care of Morehead and then tomorrow we'll--I think physically that's going to be the most important. We're playing five matches in six days so we're going to have to take care of our bodies and all that stuff, but I told them in the locker room, 'We can beat Ohio State but we can go down to South Carolina or Florida.'

UK's win over Ohio State served notice of what the Cats are capable of, but Kauffmann doesn't want his team to forget what it looks like when they aren't in top form.

"We're for sure going to use this match in the future and I'm going to use the Alabama match also," Kauffmann said. "That's what we can do when we are not intense and not playing great and this is what we can do when we're together and playing good."


Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops



The back-and-forth between Kentucky's two units continued on Wednesday, with the offense bouncing back during what Neal Brown called a "really good, spirited" practice.

"Pretty good work today," head coach Mark Stoops said. "Good energy. Offense responded a little bit. Monday defense got after a little bit. Had good energy. Good enthusiasm. Probably had the upper hand in team drills, today the offense responded a little bit, a little more balanced."

That continues a trend that's lasted through the week and a half of spring practice with the Wildcats showcasing offseason improvement. That doesn't mean there isn't a long road ahead.

"I like what I see," Stoops said. "Guys are working hard and getting better. But like I always say, we have miles to go. But I like their attitude, their energy and their work ethic. We're improving."

Brown echoed that sentiment, singling out his linemen for praise.

"I like the energy we got, especially up front with our offensive line," Brown said. "We're starting to get some leadership up there with Jordan Swindle and Darrian Miller and Jon Toth really coming along."

In the backfield, UK got a boost with the return of Jojo Kemp and Braylon Heard. The two running backs have sat out recently with minor injuries, but were back in action on Wednesday.

"We're getting more depth at that position," Stoops said. "Mikel (Horton) is getting a bunch of work. Josh (Clemons) being back a little bit has been helpful. He's a tough physical presence in there. It's been good. We need to get a bunch of guys."

Clemons has been a particularly pleasant surprise after missing each of the last two seasons, the first while rehabbing a knee injury suffered as a freshman and the second after sustaining an Achilles tendon injury in preseason workouts.

"I can't even explain it, really," Clemons said, asked how much he's enjoying being back on the field. "I'm just happy to be back out here with the guys and getting better instead of just sitting around watching all the time."

Clemons, however, was doing more than just sitting during the time he missed, working hard in the weight room and making sure his injured knee and ankle are back at full strength. And now, looking much like the player who led UK in rushing through the first six games of his freshman year, Brown says Clemons is an example to his teammates.

"Toughness and perseverance, without question," Brown said. "He really attacked his rehab. He looks better now than any time that I've seen him."

If Clemons sustains that form, he could be a valuable piece for an offense that needs as many running backs as possible. For now, he's excited just to have the chance to compete.

"It's a lot of talent, a lot of talent," Clemons said. "We're out there competing each day, pushing each other and we're getting better as we go."

Neal Brown interview



Live blog: Men's tennis vs. No. 1 Ohio State

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Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a lot to ask, holding a season celebration less than 24 hours after Kentucky's magical NCAA Tournament run ended.

Emotions were still raw after the Wildcats' national championship game defeat for players and fans alike, and missed opportunities from Monday night still very much top of mind.

But on Tuesday afternoon, it should come as no surprise the Big Blue Nation came through under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Wildcats, because they know what UK fans are all about, weren't surprised, but they certainly appreciated the show of support.

"You're the best fans in the world," senior Jon Hood told the crowd at the season celebration at Rupp Arena. "You supported us all year in an up-and-down year. You came out when we were playing good; you came out when we were playing bad. You supported us the whole way."

An estimated crowd of 3,500 filled Rupp Arena to pay a deserved tribute to the Cats and the season that was. The mood may not have been as jubilant as it would have had the 60-54 score of UK's game against Connecticut been reversed, but the event and the drive from the airport to downtown served as a fitting cap to a month no one will soon forget.

After UK's team plane arrived early Tuesday afternoon, the Wildcats were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers at the airport before they piled into three buses with coaches and support staff. Flanked by a police escort, the Cats went on a circuitous path to Rupp, even stopping to say hello to a large group gathered outside Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

The rest of the route was lined by waving and cheering fans -- an incredible number wearing UK blue -- as the team buses traded honks with passing cars.

"We made this ride from the airport to the arena two years ago and I forgot how emotional it was, people lining streets of Lexington to thank this group of basketball players," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It reminds me how deeply tied we are to this community, to our state and to our university and how much this program means to all of you and we're indebted to you for your loyalty to us."

UK fans, to say the least, have a reputation for being demanding of their beloved Wildcats. That was never clearer than this year as Kentucky saw its season go from unbeaten aspirations to an almost-assumed first-weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, of course, the Cats went on that run. They upended unbeaten Wichita State. They took down rival Louisville and rode clutch performances past Michigan and Wisconsin and into the title game, though just short of a championship.

Disappointment still fresh for the Cats, the UK fans known far and wide for their championship-or-bust expectations, proved they value the heart, determination and togetherness their team showed throughout the tournament above all else.

In doing so, they may have just helped fast forward the healing process for the Cats by reminding them of exactly how special these last three weeks have been.

"I can't tell if we lost that game last night after witnessing what I am right now," Willie Cauley-Stein tweeted from the bus ride to Rupp.

John Calipari, following Barnhart in addressing the crowd from a podium erected on the Rupp floor, delivered another such reminder.

"You know these guys behind me -- because I'm going to say this from experience -- at some point they're going to be a grandfather," Calipari said. "... They're going to be a grandfather and their grandson's going to on their lap and sit on their knee and say, 'Granddad, tell me about you as a player. I heard you played.' 'Well let me tell you about my freshman year.' "

They'll have plenty to tell.

By the time Aaron Harrison is bouncing a grandchild on his knee, his three game-winners will probably have come from half-court. When Alex Poythress remembers his game-turning and-one dunk against Wisconsin, he'll probably have jumped from outside the free-throw line.

But for all the tall tales they'll tell about surviving one of the hardest roads in NCAA Tournament history, there's no way they'll be able to exaggerate the closeness that made it all possible.

"I want to thank the young men behind me who have possessed the skill, combined it with learning and listening and loving each other to create moments and memories which will last our lifetime and theirs," Barnhart said. "I want to thank you. It has been a heck of a ride and we're really, really, really proud of what you guys have done. Outstanding."

Pride, for everyone on that end-zone stage, was mixed with regret and -- maybe more than anything else -- exhaustion. Not only have the Cats played nine games in 25 days in four different cities while also managing a regular spring-semester course load, they had also had a short night of rest following the season's final game.

Tiredness, however, will fade after a couple good nights of rest. The memories, including the ones made on Tuesday in Rupp Arena and on the roads of Lexington, will not.

"While our minds and bodies -- all of us -- are tired, our hearts are still filled with love for each other and this opportunity to climb this mountain together," Calipari said. "I will tell you it's time now to reflect, celebrate and remember -- and continue to remember -- we are breaking barriers."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Big Blue Nation stands proud after memorable season

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's a tough day in Big Blue Nation, but hardly one to be ashamed of. Though the season ended in disappointment Monday night, it hardly tarnished a magnificent run.

BBN was in full support of the Wildcats after their loss on Monday and into the early morning hours on Tuesday. Below are a collection of tweets of support.

Just a reminder, the team will still have its season celebration Tuesday afternoon after landing back in Lexington. Tickets are free. You can read the full details here.

                    To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas - The questions on their future were as predictable as this recent run has been improbable.

Is it too early to start asking about declaring for the NBA Draft?

"Yes," Aaron Harrison said, leaving it at nothing more than that.

But with Kentucky's season over and the NBA early-entry deadline now looming, the Wildcats, still dealing with a disappointing loss to Connecticut in the national championship game, were hounded with questions on their basketball future nonetheless.

All of the potential NBA players said they haven't thought that far ahead.

"I'm just focused on this game right now," Andrew Harrison said. "I want to spend these last days with my teammates and stuff before we get back to Lexington."

After they get back and the dust settles from the season, John Calipari said he will sit down with each player and figure out what they want to do.

"I'll sit down with each young man individually, probably have their family either with us or on a speakerphone, and get them information and say, 'If I can help you with anything, let me know. Tell me what you want to do, what do I need to do to help you?' " Calipari said. "I kind of stay out of the decision-making. I just get them information. So we'll see. I have no idea because I haven't talked to them and none of us have talked about that. We were playing to win the national championship."

A number of Wildcats were already predicted as potential NBA Draft picks as recently as a month ago, but the wild tournament run that brought Kentucky to the national championship game certainly boosted the draft stock for a number of players.

Looking through the roster and NBA mock drafts, there are multiple players who will have the option of moving on to the next level should they choose to do so. Returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are potential draft picks after staying through a second season to develop their game. Freshmen Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson are all high on NBA draft boards, especially after their performances in the NCAA Tournament.

But in the immediate aftermath of the UConn loss, with eyes still puffy and tears still flowing, the Cats didn't want to talk about their futures. Randle, who is predicted to go high in the first round, said thinking about the NBA is the farthest thing from his mind.

"Right now it's just hard to think about that," Randle said. "It hurts. I haven't really thought about it yet."

Cauley-Stein, who chose to stay another year after last season's NIT appearance to compete for a national championship, said the decision comes down to more than just dollars and cents.

"The best thing that's probably ever happened to me is coming to Kentucky," Cauley-Stein said. "That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star. The kids look up to you. The old people, they look up to you. You got 40-year-old guys that you're their role model because you're 20 years old and you're like, 'How am I going to be a role model when you're 20 years older than me?' It's just amazing to see. Those fans are so powerful."

The power of the fans and the community will make him think long and hard about his decision.

"That will always being weighing in the back of your head when you're trying to make a decision whether you want to stay until you can't stay no more or you want to leave early," Cauley-Stein said. "That's kind of like how I am. Why not relish something for as long as you can until you're forced to leave or make that jump. That's the hardest thing."

One item that does not play a factor in Cauley-Stein's case is his recent ankle injury.

"It's not serious enough what's going to happen," Cauley-Stein said. "But you just don't know. Something might come up where you have to leave or something might come up where you need to stay. It's just time, you know what I'm saying? You got weeks before you really have to make your decision."

As for Aaron Harrison, the biggest factor for him is his family, and even potentially playing without his twin brother, Andrew.

"I really don't want to think about that right now," Aaron Harrison said. "I've been playing with him my whole life. It's our dream, but taking away something that's been there is taking away your oxygen."

Within the next couple of weeks, by April 27 to be exact, all of the Wildcats will be forced to decide between playing another season at UK or taking the leap to the next level by entering the NBA Draft. Calipari said that the decision ultimately comes down to what's best for the individual player.

"Now that the season's over, it is about the players," Calipari said. "It's no longer about the program. It's no longer about the team. It's about each individual player on this team now. They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Season's over. Now it's about them. And we'll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Willie Cauley-Stein, reduced to cheering on his teammates and watching from the bench, had clearly spent some time thinking about UK's championship celebration.

He couldn't help but think about it more after the Wildcats' bid to cut the nets down in AT&T Stadium was cut short in the national title game on Monday.

"The hardest part is you want to leave on some joy," Cauley-Stein said. "You don't want to leave this tournament how we're about to leave it. It would have been so much better if we left it up on this stage swinging our shirts and wearing our hats backwards and taking goofy pictures that are going to be with us forever."

Instead, the Cats walked off the floor as the Connecticut Huskies enjoyed the celebration Cauley-Stein so vividly imagined. As if a 60-54 loss to end a remarkable NCAA Tournament run wasn't painful enough.

"It's a long walk," Aaron Harrison said. "You just get the feeling that that could have been you and you kind of want to start over but you don't get start-overs in life and you don't get second chances."

Aaron Harrison is right about not getting second chances. The Cats won't ever shake the frustration that came with the 11 free throws they missed in 24 attempts. The nightmares of the loose balls they missed out on in being outrebounded 34-33, those won't go away anytime soon.

But neither will the moments that brought UK to within one win of its ninth national title.

Those three game-winners Aaron Harrison hit in in as many games -- no matter what he may say -- they'll still be seen on March Madness highlight reels for years to come. Those four instant-classic games a group of freshmen managed to win with grit, toughness and a steadfast refusal to give in, fans will still remember them for years to come.

Still processing the fact that their season was over, the Cats went through the internal tug-of-war between the sting of a too-recent defeat and the memories built on a run for the ages.

"I'm proud of the run we made, but this isn't what we planned on," Aaron Harrison said. "I'm not really satisfied with it, but at the same time we did make one of the best runs ever and we just came together as a team like has never been seen before."

As much the Cats captured the hearts of the Big Blue Nation with the unlikeliest of Final Four berths in the program's rich history, that togetherness is what those outside the UK locker room will never quite grasp. No one could be expected to, because there are moments when not even John Calipari is able to fathom what just happened.

"I can't tell you, even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."

They had seemingly every reason to give up a month ago after their season hit its low point with a loss to South Carolina, but they rallied around each other and an as-yet-unconfirmed "tweak" in the postseason.

The same was true as UK faced deficits of at least nine points in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game, but the Cats simply never gave in.

"These kids really fought and tried and what they accomplished, I told them, this was the best group I've ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn," Calipari said. "I've never coached a team this young."

Shouldering the unyielding burden of unprecedented preseason expectations, there was a time when it seemed unlikely that young team of talented players would jell into a cohesive unit. Aaron Harrison credits his coach for finally turning the bond the team had always shared into on-court results.

"I think Coach taught how to play basketball together," Aaron Harrison said. "We were always close off the court. We always hung out, but just what Coach taught us, it was just amazing that he could change us around and what everyone was saying about how we were selfish and couldn't play as a team, we just proved the world wrong really."

In the process of proving the world wrong, the Cats proved themselves and their coach right. Winning at the highest level with a group of gifted freshmen is indeed possible.

"The things we did and accomplished this year is just something we're always going to remember," Julius Randle said. "I wish we could have got more game, but I'm proud of the fight that we had."

That pride, of course, was twinged with a dose of dejection.

Randle sat back in the corner of his locker, answering questions politely but barely above a whisper at times. Andrew Harrison also handled his postgame responsibilities admirably, but with his eyes still damp with tears.

His twin brother kept a stiff upper lip as he addressed reporters, only coming close to losing his composure when asked about the hardest part of the loss.

"Just seeing the seniors like Jon Hood and Jarrod (Polson) just going out like that," Aaron Harrison said.

On that count, score one against the cynics who say Coach Cal's gifted newcomers care only about themselves and their immediate futures.

"At the end of the day with no one left, we knew that this team would never be assembled again," Polson said. "We realize that this is probably one of the best groups of guys we've ever had at Kentucky and probably that anyone will ever experience again, as far as pros or wherever people might go."

Those stay-or-leave questions, however, are for another day. For now, these Cats are only thinking about each other, the run they made and what they fell just short of accomplishing.

"It's just a blessing to be a part of this team because of the way we came together," Aaron Harrison said. "We're still one of the best stories ever and on paper we had the hardest run in NCAA Tournament history. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We just wanted to win."


To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UConn steals Kentucky's storybook ending

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UK_UConn_mbball_4-7-14_03_cw.JPG

ARLINGTON, Texas - The story, for all its magic, for all its improbability, just seemed so perfect.

On a run for the ages, with dramatic, implausible victories with youth not seen since the Fab Five, the only thing left in a storybook season was the last chapter.

But Kentucky, sticking to a carbon-copy script that got it to the NCAA Tournament finals, finally got burned by it. The Wildcats (29-11) fell behind by double digits before making its patented late first-half charge, but UK could never fully get over the hump, falling 60-54 to Connecticut in the national championship game in AT&T Stadium.

"Even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," John Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."

The fight just came up one game short, ending but not tarnishing an unforgettable run.

Kentucky started the season atop the polls with 40-0 dreams, appeared to crumble with youth during the regular season under the pressure and expectations of the hype, and then turned everything around in the postseason with a run to the finals as the No. 8 seed.

The Wildcats couldn't finish it off, meaning Villanova is still the highest seed to ever win the tournament, but the run will hardly be forgotten.

"The stuff we fought through, the scrutiny we took, it's amazing," Andrew Harrison said. "This one definitely hurt us but there's a bigger picture than that."

The big picture, the Wildcats said in a somber but not overly dejected locker room, is that this is a team that came back from the dead when the coffin was already buried beneath six feet of dirt.

"This group of guys are special," said Julius Randle, who came up just a game short of winning a national championship in his hometown. "We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and (how) we were able to make this run just says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this."

After all the comebacks they made to get to Monday night, it seemed like the season wouldn't end how it did.  The Wildcats, in rallying back from deficits of nine, 13, 10 and nine in the previous four tournament games, had made the unthinkable believable with late-game charges and iconic Aaron Harrison shots.

With all that had happened, even when UK fell behind early, it just felt like Kentucky was going to make its charge and pull one more out of the hat.

"I thought we were going to win the game," Calipari said.

Kentucky, finally, just couldn't get over the hump.

"The run was fun and everything but it was a big letdown," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed his third straight game with a left ankle injury. "The steps we took to get here and how we won the last three games, you feel like you're going to win this one because you don't win three games in a row the way you did and come up short. That's really heartbreaking because you feel like some crazy faith is going to happen and you end up winning the game even though you played like you did. You feel like you came up short on something."

James Young dunks in traffic for two of his 20 points against UConn (Chet White/UK Athletics) James Young dunks in traffic for two of his 20 points against UConn (Chet White/UK Athletics)

The Cats, as they've done throughout the tournament, dug themselves a hole in the first half. After turning it over just four times in the win against Wisconsin, UK struggled to hang on to the ball against UConn's pesky guards and failed to hammer the opponent on the glass like it had done all year long.

"You're playing in the national championship game. You're a freshman. It's tough," Andrew Harrison said of UK's seven first-half turnovers. "But at the same time they played great defense."

Hardest to overcome of all was an apparent less-than-100 percent Julius Randle, who grimaced in pregame warm-ups and struggled to assert himself early. TBS reported during its national broadcast that Randle was dealing with cramps, which plagued the freshman forward early in the 2013-14 campaign, but Randle dismissed the report.

"I was fine," Randle said.

Coach Cal said he was tired.

"He's a freshman and he's anxious," Calipari said. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It's normal."

Randle came alive late in the first half and Coach Cal went to a zone, briefly slowing down Shabazz Napier and Co. and slicing what was once a 30-15 deficit to 35-31 at halftime.

"The only thing that slowed them down is us going zone," Calipari said. "And you know me well enough, I don't usually do that. I said we got no choice or we're going to be down 20. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance."

The Cats closed within one on three different occasions, evoking memories of Kentucky's memorable surges in the last couple of weeks, but they could never take the lead.

Connecticut pulled away by nine midway through the second half, UK rallied back to within one again on a James Young surge, but after Aaron Harrison, who provided three game-winners in the previous three games, missed a 3 to take the lead, Napier (22 points) hit a 3-pointer to start the championship closing.

"All those shots (I hit) don't really matter anymore," Aaron Harrison said.

Calipari suggested that was nonsense.

"You think I'm mad at that guy (Aaron Harrison) that missed that 3? Not at all," Calipari said. "They kid made shots this whole run. Missed one. Hey, it happens."

UK hung around just a little bit longer, but when Ryan Boatright hit a step-back jumper with 4:13 left, Kentucky cracked.

"Boatright's big shot, huge shot," Coach Cal said. "Like, they're dying and he makes like a step-back and we miss an open shot, a couple free throws. We're not going to win then."

If there was any hope, DeAndre Daniels squashed it on a second-chance layup with 2:47 left. That put the Cats down six.

"I needed to do a better job for these kids today because they needed more help in this," Calipari said. "... You're talking all freshmen out there. They needed more from me. I wish I had a couple more answers to create something easier for them."

Calipari said he elected not to foul at the end and stretch the game out because of Connecticut's success at the line. The Huskies, one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, made all 10 of its attempts Saturday.

Meanwhile, UK missed 11 of its 24 attempts.

"We were waiting for that something to happen and it was them this time, it was UConn that made the biggest shots to win the game," Jarrod Polson said. "That's just the way things go sometimes. You can't really do anything about it."

Said Calipari: "This was as much (about) them, how they played. They were not going to let us take this game from them."

The Huskies didn't allow Kentucky to finish off its storybook ending, but they couldn't take away the memories.

"It's been the best experience of my life," Andrew Harrison said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


Video: UK-UConn Postgame Player Interviews

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Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, and Alex Poythress

Julius Randle and James Young

 
John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- One win.

That's all that separates the Kentucky Wildcats from their ninth national championship, and surely the most improbable of the bunch.

To reach the national championship game, UK has survived a veritable murderer's row. Starting with Wichita State and going through Wisconsin, the Cats have taken down three Final Four teams from a season ago and four top-11 teams, according to kenpom.com.

Every one of those games has been an offensive slugfest, with UK using sound execution to advance. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the run -- other than Aaron Harrison's repeated clutch displays -- has been the Cats' ability to withstand efficient offensive days by opponent after opponent. UK has allowed 1.1 points per possession in four straight games, but stayed alive by scoring at least 1.18 points per possession.

A look at the numbers using kenpom.com's advanced stats shows recent history is unlikely to repeat itself against UConn.

When Kentucky is on offense

UK has climbed all the way up to sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the tournament, but the Cats are in for a test against a Connecticut team that's been similarly good on defense.

The Huskies rank 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and boast impressive defensive outings against top-25 offenses Villanova, Michigan State and Florida in the tournament. UConn held all three to 0.93 points per possession or fewer to set up a rematch of the 2011 national semifinal.

UConn is a rare team that both forces turnovers at a high rate (86th nationally) and is effective avoiding fouls (71st in defensive free-throw rate). That starts with ball pressure in the backcourt from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The two small guards each average at least 1.5 steals per game.

That will be a test for the Harrison twins, especially Andrew. UK's point guard is playing his best basketball of the season, but he is still averaging four turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament. Decision-making, suffice it to say, will be at a premium.

UK (143rd in effective field-goal percentage) also faces a tough matchup against UConn's first-shot defense. The Huskies rank 15th nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense largely on the strength of a front line that is the longest UK has faced this postseason. UConn ranks 12th nationally in block percentage and eighth in 2-point field-goal percentage defense.

But even if the Cats aren't hitting shots as they have the last two weeks, all hope is not lost. UK -- the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country according to kenpom.com -- will take on a UConn team ranking 247th in defensive rebounding percentage. Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee could have a field day on the offensive glass.

When Kentucky is on defense

This is another even matchup, with UK ranking 44th in defensive efficiency and UConn 37th in offensive efficiency.

The Huskies' strength is their shooting, from outside specifically. UConn is 81st nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in 3-point shooting at 38.9 percent. Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey all shoot better than 40 percent from 3, and Daniels and Giffey figure to pose a unique matchup challenge. Often on the floor together, the two forwards are 6-foot-9 and 6-7, respectively, meaning UK's bigs will need to play close attention.

UConn is slightly above average in the turnover department (turnover rate of 17.3 percent) and below average in offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. For UK to have success on defense, rebounding and playing without fouling will be paramount.

That's especially true given UConn's free-throw shooting. The Huskies are fourth nationally in foul shooting at 77.4 percent on the season and 86.7 percent in the tournament.

Bottom line

UK's tournament games thus far have all featured 64 or fewer possessions. Don't expect that to change on Monday night at 9:10 p.m. ET. The Huskies are 260th nationally in adjusted tempo and perfectly happy grinding it out and allowing Napier to make plays.

More of a defensive battle than we've seen of late is likely in the offing as well. UConn excels in taking opponents out of their game, primarily with ball pressure. Over the last two games, opposing point guards Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida have combined for six points on 3-of-12 shooting, three assists and seven turnovers.

Given the problems UConn poses on the perimeter on both ends of the floor, you'll likely be talking about rebounding if UK cuts down the nets. The Cats have a significant on-paper edge on both ends of the floor in this area with their athleticism, strength and length.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

The redefinition of Kentucky euphoria

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UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

To fully appreciate the magnitude of what the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team has accomplished during its magical run to the NCAA title game, one has to understand the entirety of the story, for it's a multi-layered saga with nonstop drama.

"I've never witnessed a season like this," legendary former UK coach Joe B. Hall said. "It redefines what it means to cause the fan base to have such euphoria. This has been unreal."

The euphoria that Wildcats fans are feeling at the moment comes not only from the Cats' 12th appearance in the national championship game, but also from how decidedly unexpected the team's incredible tourney run is, especially considering that between Feb. 15 and March 8, Kentucky lost four of seven games in uninspiring fashion.

So bleak were the prospects of UK making noise in any postseason tournament that the Wildcat faithful had to look toward the heavens to see a snail's belly after a 72-67 road loss at lowly South Carolina on March 1, merely 10 games ago.

"People lose hope (when the Cats struggle so mightily); it effects everything they do in their lives," Hall said about the rabid UK fan base. "They're hurt, they're downtrodden and depressed. They enter the depths of depression when the team doesn't play well."

Not playing well is a kind characterization of how most Cat fans felt about how poor UK's late-season efforts were. Included in the four losses in seven games were back-to-back losses to unranked Arkansas in Rupp Arena, followed by the South Carolina loss then an 84-65 spanking at the hands of mighty Florida.

The Commonwealth was so down on this team, all aspects of how the program is run were brought into question by disappointed fans. Before, questioning the direction of the program was a laughable thought.

"There was a lot of talk that people don't like Coach Cal, they don't like the one-and-dones, he needs to get four-year players, etc.," former UK great Winston Bennett said.

Without a doubt, the Cats were scuffling.

Then came "The Tweak." After being crushed in the regular-season finale in Gainesville, Fla., John Calipari altered something -- perhaps the way he coaches his players, perhaps the way the team plays defense, perhaps in the way he handles the Harrisons. Theories on the makeup of the tweak are all guess work because Cal has been unsurprisingly coy as to exactly what the tweak entails.

Whatever the alteration might have been, Kentucky basketball history was waiting to be made, because the team was poised to make the singular leap from confounding to champions, in record-setting time.

"And then all of the sudden (for the team) to come to life?" Hall said, happily exasperated. "It's like the prodigal son returning home. It just lit up the world."

Reversal of fortune

Being saddled with an eight seed coming into the NCAA tourney, and with a bracket of top-10 teams awaiting the nation's youngest college basketball squad, Kentucky fans were left mostly to hope. Hope that the Wildcats they saw nearly upset the country's No. 1 team in the SEC title tilt, had enough left in them to make a run in the only tournament that really matters.

Hope quickly morphed into unbridled elation, as the Cats mowed down, one after the other, more experienced and highly ranked teams on their way to a Final Four for the ages.

"To come from where they came in the month of February is just amazing," UK analyst Mike Pratt said. "That's all I can tell you ... amazing."

It's not just that Kentucky has made it to the championship game of the NCAA tourney which has UK fans walking on air, it's the manner in which the team has executed a turnaround never before seen in the rich tradition and lore of Wildcats basketball:·

  • Beating the undefeated, top-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32 after being down 66-62 with 5:50 remaining. James Young's 3-point bulls-eye with 1:40 left in the contest helped seal the victory.
  • In the Sweet 16, beating the defending national champions, the Louisville Cardinals, after being down 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, giving UK fans their first glimpse of what clutch is all about, as Aaron Harrison absolutely owned a trey with 1:39 left, giving the Cats a 70-68 lead they would not relinquish.
  • Then came Aaron Harrison again, this time in the Elite Eight against second-seeded Michigan, as he rose up and tickled the twine with yet another 3-pointer, giving UK the lead with 2.6 seconds left on the clock and sending the Cats to Final Four for the third time in four years.
  • Beating No. 12 Wisconsin after being down 67-62 with 6:17 left in the game. The Badgers were seemingly in control of the contest until a late push by the Cats brought hope out of the closet. It was Kentucky's newest hardwood hero, Aaron Harrison, who elevated from 24 feet away and bottomed out a 3 with 5.7 ticks left on the clock, propelling Kentucky to the national title game and sending UK fans into a frenzy.

"I have not seen anything like this, and I think they've redefined the word iconic," Bennett said about this squad. "It's so amazing, I don't have words for it. Here they are in the championship, and your mind is just completely blown."

No Kentucky team has beat four consecutive top-12 teams to get to the title game. No Kentucky player has made game-winning shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games.

Take note Kentucky fans, because we are witnessing history. The kind of history passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. This team has defied more than the odds because late in the season, common sense dictated little hope be harbored for a meaningful postseason. The history of the thing, though, is in the Cats' response to the experts' (and many fans') dire forecast of failure.

"The ride through the tournament, against the odds, and against the teams we had to go through to get to the Final Four, and to get to the final game is just phenomenal," Hall gushed. "It's the toughest road Kentucky has ever had in getting to the final game.

Simply stated, the resiliency of this team is remarkable. The fans' and sports writers' ubiquitous derision of the club throughout the regular season did not deter this team; it did not cause hope to be lost in the locker room. The Cats were able to put the past just where it belongs -- in the past -- and then concentrate all of their considerable efforts on proving that they are indeed champions.

"You have to give a lot of credit to these players because they listened to Cal," Bennett said. "Now look, you're playing on the night where you will hopefully get the ultimate prize. And even if they don't, and I hope and pray that they do, but (if they lose) that should not tarnish at all the legacy of redefining an iconic brand."

For all the rightful talk of team, though, it's one player who rose above all others and crowned himself Mr. Clutch during this historic UK streak of excellence.

"Aaron Harrison is an example of a true winner," Hall said flatly about Kentucky's coolest customer. "A player who can take advantage of those situations, they have a sixth sense to be able to create such focus and confidence to execute to perfection when under pressure. And that's what a winner is; a winner wants that shot and has all the confidence in the world in taking it."

It's the entire team that deserves tremendous credit for displaying a mighty will to win, a willingness to be coached, and the talent to execute greatness. But some think Calipari needs a back pat, as well.

"Anybody who has any doubts about the greatness of this coach needs to be put away," Bennett said. "I mean seriously, if you had any doubts before now, he and this team should have eradicated and erased every doubt in your mind that he is one of the best coaches in the nation."

The legacy

Ten or 15 years from now, when we look back at the 2014 season, one word will come to mind: special.

"They led us into the deepest depression this community ever saw, and then resurrected us out of the doldrums, and took us to the heights ... a turnaround like this has never been seen," Hall said about this team.

It's not every day a Kentucky team rises from the ashes and lights the Big Blue Nation on fire with an NCAA tourney run filled with unexpected victory after unexpected victory. It's awe inspiring. It's the new watershed.

"The way they turned this whole season around in a week's time prior to the SEC Tournament should be their legacy," Pratt contends. "What made them connect like they are connected now. Their sacrifice to be able to make that connection. ... It would have been easy for them to just write it off, and say, 'We'll just do what we have to do, it's been a bad year.' But they were able to connect, and as Coach (Adolph) Rupp used to say, bow their necks and make a statement. And they certainly have. You have to give them all the credit in the world. It's been amazing."

The legendary perseverance displayed by these young players is what will stick in some people's minds as being the key component to this group spinning a lost season on its head.

"You can be in your darkest moment, and ready to give up, but as long as you continue to strive and keep doing the best you can, things have an awesome chance of turning around," Bennett said. "This team has proven that. I'm so excited about this team, I don't know what to do because it's so unbelievable what they've done."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Notes: Improbable UK-UConn meeting historic

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UK advanced to the national championship game against UConn with a win on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the national championship game against UConn with a win on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connecticut hasn't experienced quite the serendipitous turnaround that Kentucky has in reaching the title game, but the Huskies were actually bigger underdogs to make the title game than the Cats.

Statistician Nate Silver, who runs the highly popular FiveThirtyEight blog on ESPN, only gave UConn a 2.0 percent chance to reach the finals when the brackets were unveiled. UK only had a 3.9 percent chance of making the title game.

UConn was seeded one line ahead of the Cats with a No. 7 seed, but the Huskies weren't given much of a chance after their recent performances against Louisville. The Huskies were slaughtered by 33 points in the Derby City on March 8 before losing by 10 points in the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals.

All told, UConn lost three games to U of L by a combined 55 points.

"I'm glad that happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach, and I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort," UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. "Down times like that just promote you. So I'm glad it happened, because we all got together, we knew what we had to do, the challenge that was in front of us and we were going to face it. We got better from that."

Since the 33-point drubbing at U of L, UConn has won seven of eight games.

Shabazz Napier has continued to play like a first-team All-American, but the difference in the late-season surge has been forward DeAndre Daniels, whom UK recruited out of high school. Daniels is averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds since that loss at Louisville.

"We bounced back from that loss and everybody was tuned in, everybody was focused and determined," Daniels said. "We made it to the finals in the conference tournament and lost to Louisville again, but we made a bigger step and we played a lot better."

Improved play aside for both teams, Monday's meeting is still historic. It's the highest combined seeds in the national championship since the tournament started seeding teams in 1978.

"I don't think we were an eight seed and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed," Calipari said.

Only one No. 8 seed has ever won the tournament (Villanova in 1985) and a No. 7 seed has never done it.

Cauley-Stein out for championship

There will be no mystery about Willie Cauley-Stein's status for the third straight game. The sophomore forward, who injured his left ankle during the Louisville game, will be in street clothes with a jersey over top for the national championship game.

"It's tough," Cauley-Stein said. "It's heartbreaking."

Cauley-Stein's status has improved, as he's ditched the boot and crutches of a week ago for a camera he's been using on the sidelines, but the chance to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage and join his teammates in the celebratory dog piles of the last two games doesn't fill the void of not being able to play.

"I feel like a bystander, like a person just watching because I'm not playing," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein has tried to stay positive through the injury as his teammates have tried to lift his spirits up, but he was clearly disappointed on Sunday knowing he won't be able to play in the national championship game after all the time he's put in the last two seasons.

"The only thing I can really do is encourage the team and stay positive even though I can't play," Cauley-Stein said. "I still serve a purpose uplifting people and just staying in people's ears or cheering."

Alex Poythress nearly joined his roommate on the injured list after hurting his leg during Saturday's postgame pile-up. Poythress left the celebration with a noticeable limp but confirmed on Sunday that he's fine and will play on Monday.

Stay in school


With Kentucky in the Final Four, the one-and-done subject has been a hot topic of debate and continued Monday morning with NCAA President Mark Emmert's press conference.

Julius Randle, who figures to be a top-five draft pick if he chooses to leave after this season, was asked Sunday if he would have gone pro out of high school if he would have had the option. His answer might surprise you.

"I probably still would have chosen to go to college," Randle said. "It is what I needed as far as maturity level. A lot of people think they are ready, but in actuality you are really not. I am really happy that I chose to go to college and get that experience of being away from home. This year has been wonderful for me as far as maturity level and kind of growing me into a young man. I am extremely happy, whether they had the rule or not, that I chose to come to college."

Pucker up

Alex Poythress drew a huge smooch on his cheek from Calipari after a play in the second half of the Wisconsin game.

"I kiss them all the time," Calipari said. "I don't kiss them on the lips, but I--"

When Coach Cal thought he heard someone say "ewwww" in the media, he pointed out that all his kids are like family to him.

"They don't need me to be a father figure," Coach Cal said. "They need me in another way, and that's who I am for them. I can't be more proud of all of these guys."

Impressing a Hall of Famer

Wisconsin, as strong as the Badgers were defensively, didn't turn over a lot of opponents during the season, ranking near the nation's worst in turnover percentage.

Having said that, for the Cats to turn the ball over just four times Saturday night, especially when possessions were at a premium against a highly efficient offense, was an impressive feat to legend and former Georgetown coach John Thompson.

"Coach Thompson said to me after the game, Hall of Famer, 'How in the world did your young kids play that offense, defend that offense? How did you have young kids do that?' " Calipari said. "They dialed in. They dialed in. We broke down a few times, (but) the reality of it is they do have a competitive spirit."

The student becomes the teacher

Though Monday will mark the first meeting of Calipari and Ollie as head coaches, it's not the first time their paths will have crossed.

Coach Cal was actually an assistant on the Philadelphia 76ers when Ollie was a player in 2000.

"You know what he was doing while he was playing: He was coaching," Calipari said. "That's how he played. He was an unbelievable student of the game then. He was teaching me when I was in Philly."

Pomeroy streak ends

Barring a historic offensive performance by UConn or a UK shutout, Ken Pomeroy's streak of projecting the national champion will come to an end Monday.

Since Pomeroy began rating teams with his very reliable formula in 2002-03, no team has ever won the national title without being in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Kentucky falls outside the criteria on the defensive side of the ball, where the Cats rank No. 44 in defensive efficiency, while UConn sits outside the offensive criteria at No. 37.  

UK will face Connecticut in the national championship game on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Connecticut in the national championship game on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Kentucky Wildcats have accomplished something many basketball players can only dream of -- getting to play for a national title on the big stage -- but the reality of the fantasy is that what's transpired over the last few weeks isn't just made up of the unforgettable moments everyone has watched on TV.

This run has included many long nights, grueling turnarounds and just an all-out grind. The latest was the postgame celebration and media responsibilities of Saturday night's win over Wisconsin that quickly turned into more press conferences and practice on Sunday.

We're talking less than 48 hours to physically and mentally prepare from the final buzzer after the Final Four showdown to when the final two teams tip off in the title game. What makes it especially tough on both the coaches and the players is the struggle to sleep with all excitement and shock of what just happened, not to mention the impossible inability to look ahead at what Monday holds in store.

"If I really told you how late I went to bed, Coach would probably kill me," Julius Randle said about Saturday night after the Wildcats' 74-73 Final Four win over Wisconsin to advance to the title game.

But Randle wasn't the only one who had trouble sleeping. Aaron Harrison said he maybe got five hours of sleep after the Wisconsin game and Coach Cal didn't get much shut eye either. Calipari originally decided to sleep and look at game tape in the morning but quickly changed his mind once he thought about the hard work his players have put in all season.

"These guys are fighting so hard for me, I'm not going to do that," Calipari said about watching game tape. "I'm going to do the tape now. So I was up until about 3:30 (a.m.) and got up about 7 o'clock this morning."

Calipari may have only gotten a couple hours of sleep, but that was enough for him given the prize that awaits Monday's winner.

"We're working on fumes now," said Calipari, who is also operating on a bad hip. "It's not like we're not tired, but your adrenaline gets you through all this."

The only player who seemed to get plenty of sleep after the latest thriller was James Young, who can apparently sleep a lot.

"I kind of sleep through everything," Young said laughing. "I just love sleeping."

Aside from the outlier, Randle believes that once teams are this deep into the tournament, everyone is fueled by the exhilaration of winning the game.

"When you're winning ... that's what gives you energy," Randle said. "Last night I couldn't sleep, just excited about what all is happening. It's kind of hard after everything that happened last night to get in bed and go to sleep. It's definitely a grind. But I'd rather be in this grind than be at home."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Andrew Harrison leads UK into the national championship game vs. UConn on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison leads UK into the national championship game vs. UConn on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Shabazz Napier, more than any other player in this year's NCAA Tournament, has been credited with carrying his team.

The junior guard scored 23.3 points per game in leading Connecticut to the Final Four, rendering his teammates an afterthought in the eyes of many.

But as the Huskies dispatched top overall seed Florida to advance to the national championship game, Napier proved what he's known all along.

"I don't need to be the guy in front of all the billboards saying, 'He was the man,' " Napier said. "I'm nothing without my teammates. I wouldn't be in this position right now without my teammates. It's just a collective group."

A collective group that needed its leading scorer to take just six shots to take down the heavy favorite for the title.

Napier, playing at least 37 minutes for the fourth time in five tournament games, didn't force his offense against the Gators. Instead, he was content to involve his teammates and be a self-described "pest" on defense to the tune of six assists and four steals.

"I tell my team all the time I don't care about scoring," Napier said. "I don't want to go out there and score all the points. I want to go out there, rack up assists, rack up rebounds, do whatever it takes to get the win. And my teammates are just doing what they're supposed to do. They're showing everybody how great of players they are."

DeAndre Daniels has been the breakout star of the tournament for UConn (31-8), particularly after his 20-point, 10-rebound performance on Saturday, but Ryan Boatright is indispensable in the backcourt alongside Napier.

Not only is he averaging 12.1 points per game, but Boatright has also evolved into the kind of defensive presence his coach always knew he could be.

"He had to mature as a young man and a basketball player," Kevin Ollie said. "It's not all about scoring. He can impact the game in so many ways and he's starting to do that at the highest stage. He's been doing it last year, he's been doing it this year, and now everybody is seeing it."

It was impossible to miss against Florida.

Boatright and Napier combined to handcuff Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, holding him to six points on 2-of-9 shooting and forcing him into three turnovers. They will look to duplicate the feat against Andrew and Aaron Harrison, the twin guards playing their best basketball of the season for Kentucky (29-10).

"I ain't going to reveal all my secrets, but I'm going to just try to do my best to turn them up and down the floor, to try to make them uncomfortable," Boatright said. "Just try to get up in them and be a little physical with them."

Physical play doesn't figure to bother the Harrisons too much since they have around half-a-foot on the 6-foot-1 Napier and 6-foot Boatright. Nonetheless, they have a good grasp on the challenge facing them as they look to complete a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament at 9:10 p.m. ET on Monday.

"It's going to be tough with those two guys," Andrew Harrison said. "Probably some of the quickest guys we've run up (against) all year. And they also have a great offensive game. It's going to be a tough matchup. You try to compare them to the Louisville guards that we played against with the full-court ball pressure and stuff like that, so we just have to stay low and be prepared for the pressure."

The pressure will come on both ends of the floor.

Napier is averaging 17.9 points and 4.9 assists, at times looking like former teammate Kemba Walker, who led UConn to a national championship in 2011, defeating Kentucky along the way in the Final Four.

"It's a great idea to be in that situation where people are comparing me to him," Napier said. "But at the end of the day, I'm not him. I want to do what he did: win the championship. Like I just said, we're just doing it a different way and walking a different path. We all want to get to the same promised land."

The Cats, having returned to the team hotel after midnight following a win over Wisconsin, have had little time to get into detailed scouting of the Huskies. They then had to tend to media obligations early Sunday afternoon, but UK planned to get down to business soon after.

"We basically woke up this morning and ate breakfast, but as soon as we get back we're going to be watching some film," Dominique Hawkins said. "We know that Napier, he's a great, great guard and all their players are good players. They wouldn't be in the national championship for no reason."

UConn played the early game on Saturday evening, so has had more time to take a closer look at Kentucky. Napier, having seen the Harrison twins in action, doesn't put much stock into the supposed battle of quickness vs. length when it comes to the Cats and Huskies.

"I think the Harrison twins are quick as us too," Napier said. "They're quick and strong. I don't think our quickness is going to beat them. I believe, when you're young, you got young feet. So I think it's definitely going to be tough. I think the Harrison twins have been playing much better."

That, of course, includes Aaron Harrison's incredible late-game heroics.

The UK shooting guard has now hit deciding 3-pointers in each of the Cats' last three wins, the latest an NBA-range dagger with 5.7 seconds left against Wisconsin.

"He's got that clutch gene that everyone's been talking about," Napier said. "He's not scared to miss the shot, because that's the chance you take. You take that shot, there's a chance you miss it. But he's going to be the guy that's wanting to be the hero and that's just a lot of respect."

But if you're looking for an x-factor that could play an important role in deciding Monday's outcome, look no further than Hawkins. Even though he's unlikely to even attempt a shot -- Hawkins scored for the first time in nearly three months on Saturday -- the matchup with UConn paves the way for the Kentucky native to see extended time.

Hawkins, after playing no more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8, has played 37 minutes over his last three outings. It all started when John Calipari took him aside in practice before UK's Sweet 16 showdown with Louisville, telling Hawkins to be ready for his shot at shadowing Russ Smith.

He ended up getting it, and was effective in limiting the Cardinal star as the Cats closed on a back-breaking run.

Smith and Napier, in terms of size, quickness and ability to score and distribute, are similar players. That begs the question: Has Coach Cal pulled Hawkins aside again for a similar conversation to the one that happened 10 days ago?

"Not yet," Hawkins said. "But hopefully he does because I'll be looking forward to the challenge."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

One more to go for one of the all-time runs

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Aaron Harrison at UK's pre-national championship game press conference on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison at UK's pre-national championship game press conference on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The car the Kentucky Wildcats drove in to make Monday night's national championship game, it has no rearview mirror.

"The guys that have played for me know I just keep looking forward," John Calipari said on the eve of the national championship game.

For all the unforgettable memories this Kentucky group has made, for all the iconic moments that will be played on NCAA Tournament highlight clips for years to come, and for all the stories of this team that will be passed down from generation to generation, these Cats are unaware of it.

They have no perspective on the grand picture of exactly what it is they're doing, the history they are making, simply because they don't have the time to process it nor the age to understand it.

"After we win the game we're happy and we're excited, but then we know we have to come right back and play another tough game," Dakari Johnson said. "I think after Monday we'll probably soak it all in. Win or lose it's been a great run, but we haven't really been thinking about the last two weeks."

And that's a shame, because it's been one hell of a run.

When Kentucky plays Connecticut on Monday at 9:10 p.m. ET in the national championship game, the Cats will try to put the ultimate cap on a run that's being hailed -- and backed up by the numbers -- as one of the most difficult in NCAA Tournament history.

UK has toppled the undefeated (Wichita State), knocked off the defending champs (Louisville) and slain the best teams from the country's best conference (Wisconsin and Michigan). The Cats have done all that not far removed from three of four losses to close the regular season, including an embarrassing loss at South Carolina.

Over the last couple of weeks, the players all said they believed Aaron Harrison when he foresaw a great ending to the season after that South Carolina game, but with that adversity well behind them and on the brink of closing out the unthinkable turnaround, Johnson admitted there was some shakiness to the theory.

"When we were losing a couple games, we had a little doubt in ourselves, but we just came together as a team," he said. "We always believed we had the talent. It was just a matter of time when we were going to show fight and compete. I think that's when we knew it was going to be a great story."

All that's left now is one more game and one more win for Kentucky's ninth national title and its second in three seasons. With a victory, Coach Cal will become just the second coach in UK's illustrious history to win two or more titles. The legendary Adolph Rupp has four.

"These guys know how I could care less (about that)," Calipari said. "This is about the joy that these guys up here will get. "

The title would be the first of any kind for a team so young. No team has ever won a national championship with five freshman starters, including Michigan's Fab Five. That group came up a victory short a title, but it is still remembered as one of the all-time teams.

This group could surpass them with a win on Monday.

"They changed the game," said Johnson, who has admittedly watched ESPN's documentary on that group a couple of times. "They didn't care what anybody thought of them and they believed in themselves. I wouldn't necessarily compare (us) to them - we don't really think about that - but they believed and so do we."

The belief by the Cats is probably the most logical reason why Kentucky weathered the sometimes torrential regular-season storm, but some have wondered during this run if a little divine intervention, essentially a date with destiny, doesn't have something to do with it.

After all, UK started the season with 40-0 dreams, lost 10 games in the regular season and then won four straight games in last-second fashion.

That seems too good to be true, right? Well, it's happened before everyone's eyes the last three weeks.

Jarrod Polson, a man of faith, has found himself on the bench sometimes during this run wondering how much destiny can play a part in such an implausible story.

"I'm still wondering about that," he said. "I mean, obviously it feels like destiny is on our side just the way the events have turned out and all of Aaron's big shots. I hope it's on our side. I don't know if God has a lot to do with sports as far as winning and losing goes, but you can never count that out. Hopefully we are a team of destiny."

Julius Randle said a national championship would have nothing to do with destiny and everything to do with a team full of hard workers.

"If we are the champions tomorrow, it will be because we did it together, played hard and trusted each other," he said.

The journey, at last, filled with all its rich storylines and unforgettable moments, will come to a close on Monday no matter what happens on that court at AT&T Stadium. This group, no matter what decisions they make in the coming weeks on their futures, will never fully be together again.

"The one thing I don't do a good job of is look back," Calipari said. "For these guys I keep saying, our destiny is out ahead of us, this team, because we're still getting better today."

But come midnight tomorrow, that car will come to a stop and all that's left to look at will be that rearview mirror. Win or lose vs. UConn, it's all over after Monday.

"We're just trying to cherish the moment and be together as much as possible because we all do love each other," Marcus Lee said. "We're just trying to savor the moment."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Max Kuhn vs. Florida
The bats came to play for the No. 19 Kentucky baseball team in a big way in a 2-1 series win over No. 12 Florida this weekend at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

The Wildcats won the series opener 17-1 before an 11-10 setback Saturday and a 9-8 series winner on Sunday. 

Kentucky had six innings with four or more runs scored that helped produce the 36-run barrage. It marked the most runs scored by Kentucky against Florida in a weekend series in school history.

"The ability to score a bunch of runs in one inning, besides the obvious, helps you down the road," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "You feel like even when you are chasing two or three that you have the ability to put a crooked number up there. You have to be able to do that a few times in order to a have a true sense of confidence that you can do that. You can talk about it all you want, but just like anything in our game, you have to do it. You have to do it more than once to feel like you can do it and have a realistic chance of doing it again."

The big innings at the plate for UK certainly came in bunches. In four consecutive innings Friday, Kentucky scored four runs three times and five runs once to jump out to a 17-0 lead in the fifth inning.

Saturday, the Wildcats were down 9-0 in the eighth inning when the bats exploded to put up eight runs on the scoreboard in the eighth inning. Florida was supposed to run away with the win in the series' second contest, but UK didn't go down easily.

It was more of the same for the home team on Sunday to secure the series win. UK was down 3-2 after it produced one-run innings in the second and third, but a seven-run sixth inning put a big number on the board and give Kentucky a big lead that was too much for the Gators to handle.

"We had a lot of guys seeing it well and we had a lot of guys taking really good swings," Henderson said of the weekend at the plate for his club. "Clearly when you have the middle of the order provide as much power as they did...A.J. (Reed) is doing a really good job. Ka'ai Tom hit the ball hard all weekend. It's opens things up for the guys down at the bottom because there are baserunners all over the place. We just had a lot of guys taking a lot of good swings and see the ball really well all weekend."

The Wildcats have an SEC-leading 110 2-out RBIs, in 32 games. Last year, they had 82 in 55 games. Sunday, UK was 8-15 with runners on base with two outs. All seven runs in the sixth inning came with two men out.

Junior Max Kuhn was responsible for three of those runs with his fourth homer of the year. His shot, which barely cleared the wall in straightaway left field, gave Kentucky a 6-3 lead. It was a lead UK would never relinquish.

"It's important," Kuhn said of the team's offensive ability. "With our hitting, we always stay in it. Just staying in the game and getting some guys on can really get our offense going. That's what we do. We get that momentum and it's tough to stop us. We had close to 50 hits and about 30 runs, which is always good in the SEC. It is something that doesn't happen very often."

The Wildcats will look to keep the offensive output going Tuesday against Morehead State at 6:30 p.m. ET before they host Missouri in a weekend series for the first time in team history. Friday's contest will begin at 6:30 p.m. ET at Cliff Hagan Stadium will Saturday's game commences at 2 p.m. The Wildcats and Tigers close the series Sunday at 1 p.m.
Aaron Harrison


Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson


Notes: Johnson, UK clamp down on Kaminsky

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Dakari Johnson had 10 points and seven rebounds while defending Wisconsin leading scorer Frank Kaminsky on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 10 points and seven rebounds while defending Wisconsin leading scorer Frank Kaminsky on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Derek Willis, imitating Wisconsin star center Frank Kaminsky in practice, earned the nickname "Derek the Destroyer" from Marcus Lee.

Willis may have terrorized Lee and Dakari Johnson, but it served a purpose.

The Cats limited Wisconsin's star center to just eight points on seven shots and limited his touches. Kaminsky also didn't manage a single 3-point attempt after torching Arizona for three treys and 28 points in the Elite Eight.

"It was perfect," Lee said. "Derek absolutely loved lighting us up in practice and we needed it a lot, especially going at (Kaminsky) now. He did exactly what everybody thought he was. He was great. He played his butt off and it just happened to tip the wrong way for him."

Lee, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress all took turns on the Badgers' leading scorer and rebounder, but it was Johnson who most often matched up with the versatile 7-footer. Hearing all the talk about how tough a matchup it would be for him, Johnson took the challenge personally.

"During practice he took it super serious when Derek was going at us because he knew he would be able to slide his feet and defend," Lee said. "We just had to make sure he was it was in his head the whole time and that's what he did. He played great defense the whole game."

Not only that, but Johnson added 10 points and seven rebounds, five of which came on the offensive end. The freshman is averaging 11 points and 5.3 rebounds starting with the Louisville game, when Willie Cauley-Stein went down with an ankle injury.

Cats still clutch


On Thursday, we broke down the Cats' offensive excellence in closing out wins over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.

UK didn't quite keep up its ridiculous two-point-per-possession pace, but the Cats once again were efficient in the clutch in advancing to the national championship game.

In six possessions over the final five minutes against Wisconsin, UK scored nine points for an average of 1.5 points per possession. The Cats shot 3 of 6 from the field, 1 of 2 from 3-point range and 2 of 2 from the foul line in the process.

Here are UK's updated offensive statistics in the last five minutes of the last four wins:

  • 28 possessions
  • 53 points
  • 1.89 points per possession
  • 14 of 21 (66.7 percent) from the field
  • 6 of 8 (75 percent) from 3
  • 19 of 23 (82.6 percent) from the free-throw line
  • One turnover
  • Five rebounds on 10 free misses (offensive-rebounding percentage of .500)

Against Wisconsin, UK scored on all three possessions on which it trailed over the final five minutes. The Cats have now scored on 12 straight possessions in such situations at a 2.33-points-per-possession clip.

The Cats have needed their offense to come through in the final minutes because their opponents highly ranked offenses are scoring almost at will. UK has allowed at least 1.08 points per possession in four consecutive games and an average of 1.19 over that stretch after Wisconsin rolled up 1.20 points per possession on Saturday.

Over that same set of four games, UK is scoring an average of 1.23 points per possession.

Drake visits locker room

With the Final Four on a stage like AT&T Stadium, Saturday night turned into a who's who of American celebrities.

Among the stars spotted in the record NCAA Tournament crowd of 79,444:

  • Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard
  • Comedian Kevin Hart
  • Naismith Hall of Famer Charles Barkley
  • UCLA legend Bill Walton
  • Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel
  • NASCAR driver Danica Patrick
  • Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson
  • Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson

But the celebrity the Cats were most star-struck by - the artist whom many of the players likely have on their iPods - just happened to be in UK's locker room after the victory. Drake, after watching the Cats win 74-73, stopped by to celebrate with the team.

"He just talked to us," Dominique Hawkins said. "Told us to enjoy the moment."



Coach Cal, of course, has called Drake a friend since his days at Memphis. He served as a celebrity coach during the first Big Blue Madness of the Calipari era, and last year Coach Cal attended Drake's high-school graduation.

"It's crazy," Hawkins said. "I never had anybody famous ever celebrate a win with me or anything like that. I'm honored to be on this team. I guess it's a blessing for us to play for Kentucky because we have so many fans, fans like Drake. It's unbelievable."

Former Wildcat Terrence Jones was also in the locker room after the win.

Positive predicting

Lost in the heroics of Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot and Alex Poythress' big buckets late was the steady play of James Young on Saturday.

The freshman wing, who has hit his fair share of big shots during this NCAA Tournament run, led UK against the Badgers with 17 points. Young scored seven of Kentucky's first nine points and nailed the only 3-pointer of the game until Aaron Harrison's shot.

"James had it going," Aaron Harrison said.

Noting the wealth of stars on this UK team, which was punctuated by the fact that Young led all scorers Saturday and was just another guy in postgame video interviews, Calipari pointed out some Young's scoring barrages this season and predicted a big night for the Michigan native.

Remember, Calipari has been pretty spot on the last two games in predicting Marcus Lee's coming-out party and Alex Poythress' difference-making plays.

"James Young has had 25-point games, which I'll make a prediction he'll have in this Monday night game," Coach Cal said. "You listening to me, (James)? I'm putting a positive seed in your mind right now."

Calipari made a similar prediction before the 2012 national championship game about Doron Lamb. Lamb would go on to score 22 points to lead UK to a 67-59 win over Kansas.

Party on

While pandemonium broke out in AT&T Stadium as soon as Aaron Harrison hit the game-winning shot, mayhem took over in Lexington.

Reports out of Lexington showed pictures of students overtaking South Limestone and State Street in the seconds after the game. Videos of raucous celebrations at local bars and restaurants were easy to find on social media.

"They're definitely burning something right now," Julius Randle said.

Despite the effort of local authorities to tone down the celebrations of the 2012 run, there were reports of couches burning in Lexington.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Aaron Harrison's 3 with 5.7 seconds left gave UK a 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison's 3 with 5.7 seconds left gave UK a 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Aaron and Andrew Harrison had a moment as the clock ticked under 10 seconds.

UK trailing by two, Andrew Harrison passed to his brother. As Andrew Harrison shouted for him to 'Go, go!' a grin came across Aaron Harrison's face.

Having spent all of his 19 years around his identical twin, Andrew Harrison knew exactly what the look meant.

"He was smiling like he knew he was going to make it," Andrew Harrison said.

After a moment's hesitation, Aaron Harrison rose over Wisconsin's Josh Gasser. The Division I-record crowd of 79,444 anxiously watching -- and the blue-clad fans in attendance surely confident given the freshman shooting guard's recent history -- he buried the 3 from NBA range with 5.7 seconds left, propelling UK to a 74-73 victory and a spot in the national championship game.

"I want to be the one to take the shot and I'm not afraid to miss the shot," Aaron Harrison said. "As long as you're not afraid to miss I think you have a good chance of making it."

The same smile that appeared just before his latest clutch display creeping across his face, Aaron Harrison intimated he wasn't quite as confident as his brother thought. Pressed for a number, Aaron Harrison said he was "79 percent" sure the shot would fall.

"I knew I was going to pull up, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to make it," Aaron Harrison said. "So I'm just blessed to be in that position to take the last shot."

His teammates felt similarly blessed to be able to count on a player like Aaron Harrison, who climbed into the crowd to greet his parents and family of Texas natives moments after the buzzer sounded.

"When he wants to hit the big shot, he takes it," Alex Poythress said. "Somebody has to step up. He's taken that role."

Taken it and run with it.

Against Louisville, Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead 3 in the final minute against Louisville as the Wildcats spoiled their archrivals' national title defense. Two days later, Aaron Harrison gave UK a 75-72 win over Michigan with a 3 sure to find its way on March Madness highlight reels for years to come.

On Saturday night, Aaron Harrison cemented his status as one of the best late-game shooters in NCAA Tournament history with his only 3-point attempt.

"It's amazing," he said. "It's unreal just growing up loving the tournament just being a part of it and just being a big part of history, really, with this great team and this great run we made to the Final Four."

It was a run that seemed on the verge of ending when Andrew Harrison fouled Traevon Jackson on a 3-point attempt with 16.4 seconds to go. But when the Wisconsin junior's first attempt at the line went awry, Aaron Harrison saw all the opportunity he'd need to take his twin brother off the hook.

"When you're down you have a little doubt in the back of your mind, but once he missed that first free throw I knew we had a good chance of winning the game," Aaron Harrison said.

Jackson made his next two shots and John Calipari opted not to call a timeout. He had already set the play during a break as the officials reviewed the clock before the three free throws.

"When we huddled, I said, 'We're going at Aaron, boys, anybody got a problem with that?' " Calipari said.

Of course, no one did.

Calling Andrew Harrison over after Jackson's miss, Calipari instructed his point guard to look for a layup on the drive or an easy dump-off to Dakari Johnson. If neither was available, Andrew Harrison was to pass to his brother, affectionately dubbed "the assassin" by his coach.

Aaron Harrison well covered and the Cats scrambling, Andrew Harrison dished to Johnson, who quickly gave it back. That's when that whole twin telepathy thing happened.

"I feel like they kind of talked to each other in their mind as that was going on," Marcus Lee said. "So they probably knew what was happening but we were totally lost. So I don't even know how to explain that one."

That was a theme in the immediate aftermath of UK's instant classic.

Randle, still beaming after tallying 16 points and a victory in front of his hometown fans, couldn't even recall the play UK ran to set up Aaron Harrison's shot barely 30 minutes after it happened.

"I can't even remember the name of the play right now because it's so crazy," Randle said. "I just knew Andrew was going to create something and Aaron ended up getting the ball and, I don't know, I can't really think right now."

Lee's memory is even foggier.

"I don't know what I was looking for--I don't even know," said Lee, who was on the bench for the play. "After that shot gets made and that buzzer ends, your brain kind of just shuts down after that big shot. So I can barely tell you what just happened."

Aaron Harrison recalls the specifics of the exchange a bit more clearly, but what really sticks out for him is a feeling he got from his coach and teammates.

"I think because Coach said he wanted me to take the shot and I think that gave me a lot of confidence," Aaron Harrison said. "I know my teammates had confidence in me, so I just fed off that, really."

With Aaron Harrison confident and hitting every big shot, UK is being talked about as a team of destiny as the Cats prepare for a showdown with Connecticut. But Aaron Harrison, the man responsible for so many of the magical moments that have the Cats a victory away from a ninth national title, has little interest in that discussion.

"I don't know about magic," Aaron Harrison said. "I think we all just fight and just don't let the games go. No matter what we know we have a chance to win so we always just try to keep fighting."

It would be unwise at this point to any kind of last-second heroics past Aaron Harrison at this point. And if you're worried about them becoming old hat to him, don't be.

"You're never used to stuff like that," Aaron Harrison said. "It's the best feeling. The feeling gets better and better every game."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Alex Poythress had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's Final Four win over Wisconsin on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's Final Four win over Wisconsin on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky may start five freshmen but it was a sophomore who sparked the Wildcats late and led UK to the national championship game.

Before UK's Final Four showdown with the Wisconsin Badgers, John Calipari, who is looking more and more like a prophet with each stunning performance, said that Alex Poythress had more to give. He predicted that, like Marcus Lee before him, Poythress was due for a performance everyone would be talking about after Kentucky's Final Four game against Wisconsin.

"Alex is playing great and he's halfway home," Calipari said at his pre-Final Four press conference. "He's in the best shape, he's mentally better, he's helping us win. ... But now, they should be talking about him worldwide, but he's got to let loose."

And let loose, Poythress did.

After battling back from foul trouble and sloppy play, Poythress came up big late in the game two  huge plays. His monstrous dunk with 4:45 to play got UK within two points at 69-67, and his layup, a play in which he soared well above his defender to snag a lob pass from Andrew Harrison, gave the Cats a 71-69 lead, erupted the crowd at AT&T Stadium and set the stage for Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot in the 74-73 victory on Saturday.

"It felt good," Poythress said about battling back. "It got the momentum going. It sparked a little run for us. It got the bench hyped, got everybody into the game a little more."

Poythress finished with eight points -- four of which came in the final five minutes of the game -- and seven rebounds.

"Alex lost himself in the game," Calipari said.

Calipari thinks Poythress' aggressiveness and fierce play came from watching what Lee did in the Louisville game.

"Marcus Lee kind of woke him up," Calipari said. "Like if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that. Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now. He's in the best shape of his life. Mentally, he's in a great place mentally. He's playing fearless and he's just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism."

So Calipari predicted Poythress would come through against the Badgers.

"I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he's going to have a big game," Calipari said. "I texted him, 'This is what they're saying, man. I love you.' He said, 'I love you, Coach, let's go have some fun.' And he went out there and played great."

His teammates were all proud of Poythress' performance.

"Unbelievable," Julius Randle said. "Huge. Just happy that he's playing that way. I'm just really proud of him and what he did for our team."

Willie Cauley-Stein, who was forced to watch the game from the bench due to a left ankle injury, thinks the positive vibes from the team and coaches helped fuel Poythress' performance.

"I've been with Alex for almost, a few years now," Cauley-Stein said. "I think that's how you get him going, all the positivity. Being negative with him, anybody when you're being negative to them, they just don't care. They're obviously going to fuel themselves, but you being positive, constantly in his ear like that, that's how you get Alex to play the way he does."

During the game, Poythress had an uplifting moment with assistant coach Kenny Payne, which he credits to the spark he brought the team when it needed him most.
"He said 'Keep on playing, man. We need you, we need you,' " Poythress said. "It's just how he is. He expects the best out of me. He's not going to settle for anything less. That's just the type of relationship me and KP have."

When the buzzer sounded, all of the Wildcats jumped on top of each other and Poythress ended up on the bottom of the dog pile. Poythress limped off the court after the celebration, apparently injured by the postgame pile-up, but Poythress said  he is fine.

"It's heavy," Poythress said of the dog pile. "Everybody is on you. But you're just having fun, being a bunch of kids."

On a team of a bunch of kids, the sophomore helped spark the victory.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK_UW_mbball_4-5-15_76_cw.JPG

ARLINGTON, Texas - The script has stayed the same through Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run: Hang around in the first half, get it close by halftime, make a second-half run and then pull out a heart-stopping victory.

With a side of Aaron Harrison heroics.

The Wildcats rode that script again Saturday night in the Final Four and right into the national championship game. The Cats, with a thrilling 74-73 victory over Wisconsin, have a date with Connecticut for the national title.

"Another great game," John Calipari said before putting his hand in the air in disbelief.

What else can he say? This run, these games, these finishes - Hollywood couldn't come up with a script like this.

It's left a man of many words speechless.

"We played seven freshmen, folks," Calipari said. "We played seven freshmen. They're all performing in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story."

Aaron Harrison provided the climactic, blockbuster moment again, this time with a 3-pointer and UK down by two. With the clock winding down and Kentucky's dream run fading, Aaron Harrison pulled up from long range with Josh Gasser on him - and nailed it with 5.7 seconds left.

"It was a play for Andrew (Harrison) to dribble down and me to catch it in the corner, but it didn't work out that way so he dribbled and passed it to Dakari (Johnson)," Aaron Harrison said. "He had to get it back in there and I just called for the ball. ... I just made some space and knocked it down."

Before that, Wisconsin had taken the lead when Traevon Jackson baited Andrew Harrison into fouling him on a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. Jackson made the final two free throws after missing the first to give Wisconsin a 73-71 lead, but it was only setting  the stage for another iconic moment in a run chock full of them.

After making big 3-pointers against Wichita State, sinking the go-ahead 3 vs. Louisville and then drilling the game-winner against Michigan, teammates say Aaron Harrison was smiling - yes, smiling - just before he took the shot.

"He was smiling like he knew he was going to make it," Andrew Harrison said.

Said Aaron Harrison, who hadn't taken a 3 all game: "I knew I was going to pull up, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to make it."

Julius Randle never had a doubt it was going to go in. And who could blame him after what's happened during these last few weeks?

"I thought it was good," Randle said of the 24-foot, NBA-range shot. "I have all the faith in the world in him in a situation like that. Just what he did was crazy."

When Jackson missed a jumper inside the 3-point line, the Wildcats (29-10) were headed back to the national title game for the second time in three seasons with youth not seen since Michigan's Fab Five.

 "You can't be scared to miss and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shot," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just the feeling that I want to be the one to take the shot, and I'm not afraid to miss the shot."

Wisconsin's Sam Dekker suggested after the game that Aaron Harrison has the "clutch gene."

"I just like winning," Aaron Harrison said. "If to hit that shot, if that's what I have to do to win, that's what I have to do. If it was a rebound or something else, I had to do to win a game, that's what I would try to do for my team."

Apparently all these Cats like winning. A number of them came up with clutch plays again even when UK appeared to be at the end of its good fortunes.

“We got a bunch of stars on this team,” Calipari said.

Down nine in the first half, UK did what did it against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by rallying late and making it a four-point game at halftime. Randle played a big part in shrinking Wisconsin's lead, scoring six of his first-half nine points in the 3:34 before the break.

“We’re not real good up 10, but for some reason, down 10, they grow hair on their neck,” Calipari said. “And all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”

But unlike the previous three games, the Cats didn't seize on their late first-half momentum and fell behind seven after Randle was blocked to open the second half and Dekker hit a 3.

Coach Cal knew the game was in the balance and called timeout just 59 seconds into the half.

"I can't tell you (what I said)," Calipari said. "Basically they didn't listen to me at halftime. The first play the guy takes a bad shot and then we leave and give up a 3. I just said, `Was anybody even paying attention to anything I said at halftime?' "

The Cats, as they've done all postseason, responded to their head coach with yet another defining run.

Sparked by defense, strong board work and Dakari Johnson's "and one," UK went on a 15-0 run to take a 51-43 lead. The young ones, they just don't wilt.

"These kids have been resilient," Calipari said.

But Wisconsin would not go away.

The Badgers answered with a 15-4 run of their own, retaking the lead 58-55 with 10:51 to play. From there, well, it was a finish familiar to anyone who has watched UK's previous three games.

The two teams traded punch for punch, dagger for dagger.

When Kentucky looked like it was finally running out of the gas down the stretch, Randle provided an old-fashioned 3-point play, Alex Poythress threw down a ferocious two-hand slam as he was fouled and then followed with a late-game basket on a lob pass from Andrew Harrison to take a 71-69 lead.

“Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win,” Calipari said.

Frank Kaminsky - whom UK held in check all night - tied the game at 71 with 1:15 to play.

Andrew Harrison missed a 3-pointer with the game tied at 71 and then fouled Jackson on the ensuing possession, but his twin brother had his back with the game-winning shot. In the postgame locker room, Calipari made Andrew Harrison get up and hug his brother.

"I'm proud," Andrew Harrison said. "He saved me."

With another familiar -- albeit unbelievable -- script, Kentucky has written its way into an improbable opportunity at a national championship on Monday.

It's been a run so unlikely, so hard to believe, that even the Cats don't have perspective on what type of special, unforgettable run they're on.

"No clue," Randle said. "We're just fighting. We believe in what we can do, we believe in our ability and we're just fighting."

They've got one more to go.

"We didn't come down here to get second," Aaron Harrison said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Kentucky-Wisconsin Highlights

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Patient Wisconsin to test Cats in Final Four

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UK and Wisconsin will face off on Saturday at AT&T Stadium with a spot in the national championship game on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK and Wisconsin will face off on Saturday at AT&T Stadium with a spot in the national championship game on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- All season long John Calipari has poked and prodded, trying to find a way to get his young Kentucky team to sustain energy for complete possessions.

On the eve of the Final Four, one of his youngsters shed some light on just how difficult it is to do that as a freshman.

"Going through high school you don't really go through plays," Marcus Lee said. "You're kind of just running up and down, especially in AAU. So being able to come into a college team and be able to slow everything down, be able to slow your brain down mentally and just get through the whole 30 seconds and going through the same play over and over is real hard."

At no point this season has Kentucky been closer to overcoming that challenge.

The Wildcats, playing in three straight nail-biters against teams that made last year's Final Four, have had to muster every ounce of focus just to reach this point. Each game decided by five points or less, UK has played possession after possession with its postseason life hanging in the balance.

Fittingly, the next opponent the Cats (28-10) will face presents their toughest test yet on that front.

Only 10 teams in the country hold the ball longer on offense than second-seeded Wisconsin (30-7). The Badgers are a study in patience, their average offensive possessions lasting 20.5 seconds.  

Whereas some teams shoot late in the clock because of an inability to get good looks early, the Badgers wait because past performance suggests something good will happen if they do.

"They don't get bored with going through an offensive play for the full 30 seconds," Lee said. "They're disciplined enough to go through the whole thing the whole time, stay mentally ready and then be able to go play."

If the Cats don't match that focus, the Badgers will make them pay.

"They'll get you down in the shot clock and you think you can relax but that's where they make a backdoor or set a rip screen or something like that," Julius Randle said. "So they're all very skilled players who can shoot the ball and get into the lane."

Randle clearly understands that Wisconsin's success has to do with a lot more than just Bo Ryan's system, a fact that Coach Cal has been sure to impart to his team in preparation.

"So I will tell you that they're more athletic than you think," Calipari said. "They're more skilled than you think. They're not relying solely on an offense. They're not. They run great isos for all their guys so that they put them in a position where it's one on one. Bo hadn't done a whole lot of that in the past, but what I'm seeing, now they are."

Ryan has a number of options at his disposal, with six Badgers attempting at least 19 percent of their team's shots when on the floor and scoring at least 7.8 points per game.

"I think Bo is one of those guys that throughout this game, he will figure out -- and I've seen it in all the games I've watched -- where is there a mismatch, where is there something?" Calipari said. "You do something, Bo does something else. It's like Bo knows. So we got to be on top of what we're doing because he will put people in positions to hurt you."

Ryan, coaching in his first Final Four in 13 seasons at Wisconsin, says the Badgers wouldn't win a collective footrace if you matched them up against his former teams, but he also knows, like Calipari, that saying the Cats are the only team with athleticism is grossly inaccurate.

"When you say 'athletic,' this group we have is athletic in this sense: They have good perception and spatial skills for being a good offensive team," Ryan said. "Defensively they understand they're only as strong as all five guys playing together. Our best defense is five versus five, not in transition."

Because Wisconsin's best defense is in the half-court, the Badgers typically forgo crashing the offensive glass in favor of setting up on the other end of the floor.

"They don't allow too many easy buckets," Randle said. "They're just a great defensive team and you can obviously tell they communicate well on that end of the floor. They're just very solid, don't make too many mistakes."

You can chalk a lot of that up to experience.

The Badgers start four juniors and seniors, and UK, of course, five freshmen. The Cats, however, have little interest in that narrative.

"Every team in the country has more experience than us, I guess, but how could it matter if we're all in the Final Four?" Aaron Harrison said. "We're all just playing to win a championship."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Notes: Bad hip hasn't held Cal back

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John Calipari's Final Four press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari's Final Four press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas - He drags the pain with him wherever he goes. Like a 50-pound invisible dumbbell, it pulls at him when he climbs steps and jerks at him when he jumps during games.

John Calipari's bad hip: It hurts.

"If anybody's ever had a hip issue, they will know exactly what I'm talking about," Calipari said. "So the season, the end of it is coming at a good time, let me just put it that way."

After the year is over and Coach Cal is clear of any other responsibilities - remember, he has a new book that's about to be released that will need to be promoted - Calipari will go under the knife and have hip replacement surgery for the second time in his life.

But for most of this season, Calipari has coached through sometimes excruciating pain, choosing to withstand a major inconvenience rather than to sit out a few games to have the bad hip taken care of.

"That's just Coach for you," Jon Hood said. "He's more worried about coaching his team than his hip."

He's continued coaching with the bad hip during a season that's been more trying than most.

"I'm going to have to deal with this after the season is over, but the adrenaline you have and how you feel for your team pushed you through all that," Coach Cal said.

Calipari, as he's done for most of the season, continued to downplay the hindrance on Friday at the Final Four. When reporters have given him an opportunity to make an excuse this year and blame some of the struggles on a bad hip, Calipari has declined, doing the admirable thing and telling everyone it's had no effect on his job.

Even if it has.

"I'm just limping bad," Calipari said Friday. "I was taking some pain medication for four straight days and I just said, 'That's it, I'm not doing it.' "

Calipari has looked fine when he's jumped up and down in games and stomped his foot on the sidelines as though he was a 30-year-old coach again, but when the cameras are off and the adrenaline has subsided, it's been easy to spot the very noticeable effect of a hip that's falling apart.

"You don't sleep as good," Calipari said. "You don't get the eight hours. You're waking up. But I'm fine. The job at Kentucky ages you. It's not my hip."

Hood said Calipari hasn't been as "hands-on" this season, but he's not so certain it's only because of the bad hip.

"I don't think the season's been bad on his hip," Hood said. "I think it's just - and don't tell him I said this - Coach is getting old."

Hood said Coach Cal will still "get out there" on the court during practice when he gets irritated or frustrated, noting a pretty impressive achievement in UK's final practice in Lexington when something ticked off Calipari.

"He went out and did a pump fake, one-dribble pull-up," Hood said. "Made the shot so everything looked good then."

Not bad for someone with a pain holding him down.

Fore!

When people look at the Wildcats, Coach Cal wants them to see a team that's having more fun than anyone else.

Anyone at a local Dallas driving range on Wednesday night shortly after UK arrived in North Texas saw have seen just that.

Given a couple precious hours of free time on Wednesday night - about the only free time the Cats will experience all week at the Final Four - the UK players went to a driving range and practice a little golf. Or at least something that resembled golf.

"It was just all fun and games," Aaron Harrison said. "We were just talking trash to each other."

A couple of the Wildcats, in an Instagram video posted by walk-on Tod Lanter, showed off some pretty good swings.

"Jarrod (Polson) will tell you that he was really good once he learned that he was right-handed in golf," Hood said in a player-by-player analysis of the Cats' swings. "He was swinging the driver like it was a 33-inch softball bat and letting go, finishing with one hand. Sam (Malone) was good. He plays. Tod was good. He plays. Derek (Willis) hit the ball well. Marcus (Lee) hit it well. Andrew (Harrison) just has so much confidence he'll tell you he was great even though he was just mediocre. Aaron the same.

"Alex (Poythress) hits the ball like you would think he would: When he hits it it goes a long way and when he doesn't it's hilarious. James (Young) swung and missed a couple times. Willie (Cauley-Stein) was basically holding one leg off the ground and swinging."

But the highlight of the night - for both the Cats and for viewers of a Vine Polson posted to his social media - was Dakari Johnson's stiff, abbreviated, swing and miss.

"Dakari is terrible," Hood said. "Dakari Johnson has the worst golf swing I've seen since Charles Barkley."

Barkley, of course, is known for having one of the worst golf swings ever captured by video. To compare Johnson's swing to Barkley, in all honesty, may be a compliment.

"I've never played golf before so I wasn't really used to it," Johnson said. "I thought I did fine but I guess other people thought otherwise."



The swing has become so instantly infamous that even the PGA broke down his swing on its official website.

"We're not saying Johnson should stick to basketball, but he should definitely see a PGA Professional about that swing once school is out for the summer," the post read.

Shaq

Coach Cal hasn't seen the type of defense Julius Randle has had to face this year since a certain goliath was wearing LSU's uniform in the 1990s.

"He's being played like Shaq was played in college," Calipari said. "He's got three guys on him. You have teams after the game that said, 'I want six sets of eyes on him when he drives.' "

The constant defensive attention, which has ranged from trapping to denying the post to just flat-out fouling, took a toll on Randle midway through the season when his numbers started to suffer.

But when the postseason got underway and Randle got some seasoning, he's learned to deal with the unrelenting attention.

"It's definitely hard," Randle said. "It's frustrating, but I think when you win, it kind of takes the place of that. You don't really worry about it.  ... The biggest thing is that you try to learn how to affect the game in different ways, and that's what I've tried to learn this year.  Just try to help my teammates out."

Succeed and proceed


After announcing Thursday that he was going to rebrand the "one-and-done" label to get rid of the bad connotation associated with players turning pro after one season, Coach Cal revealed his new terminology on Friday: Succeed and Proceed.

"The connotation that's been built around one-and-done is so ridiculous to make it a bad thing, a negative thing," he said. "It's not used in other sports. It's not used in other areas of life where people stay in school for a year and leave."

Calipari emblazoned the new term on T-shirts, which he revealed Friday night on Twitter.



"You cannot proceed until you succeed," Calipari said. "Succeed and then proceed."

Rene' Cornette (@Rene81) was the first to come up with the slogan on Twitter.

The hash tag #SucceedAndProceed was trending earlier Friday.

Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood are in their third Final Four with Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood are in their third Final Four with Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- To have something and to lose it, to taste something so good and then have it snatched away, that's what makes this Final Four run even sweeter for Kentucky's graybeards.

UK's freshmen have stolen the show at this weekend's Final Four, and deservedly so with the historic productivity they've accounted for in a nearly unprecedented run. But for the Wildcats' "old" guys - veterans like Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein - Kentucky's run to the Final Four has greater significance.

"This is what I stayed for," said Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior who is at his third Final Four in four seasons. "I stayed to get better, I stayed to have fun and I stayed to come back here, the opportunity to win another title."

Hood, along with Polson, could have left after last season and not come back. With degrees in hand and the option to transfer to another school and play right away under the NCAA's new graduate transfer waiver, the two opted to return to Kentucky knowing full well that their playing time would likely be limited.

Hood has played just 47 minutes this season, fewer than he registered in any of his previous seasons, and Polson has played 278 after logging 457 last year, but they don't regret - not even for a second - their decisions to come back.

In fact, they've relished it.

For all the memories they've collected over the years - a national championship, two previous Final Four appearances, and for Hood, playing with 17 players who are now in the NBA - this, to them, is their finest memory.

"I feel like this is probably the most exciting run we've been on so far ... just because the title year we were expected to win every game and this year everyone had us losing almost every game we played," Polson said.

It's the criticism they faced during the regular season when they lost 10 games and the second thoughts they may have had about coming back when adversity hit that have made this whole run all so worth it.

"What made it sweeter is everybody was counting us out," Hood said. "Everybody wanted us to lose from the second all these guys signed. That's just the way it works. To be back here in the Final Four is sweet and is always going to be sweet no matter if you come with us or Norfolk State or some random team, but to go through what we've gone through, the rollercoaster, up-and-down season, it just makes it all the better."

That, at its very essence, is why this Final Four run, even more so than in 2012 and regardless of the final outcome, is already being hailed as one of the all-time best at a school so embarrassingly rich with iconic moments.

After the way the season began, consumed with undefeated talk and with the Cats atop the polls; to the way it went, riddled with youth, losses and a failure to meet expectations; to the out-of-nowhere turnaround these last couple of weeks have produced, it's been a run that the veterans will forever savor.

"This is what you come here to do," said Alex Poythress, a veteran by UK standards. "Kentucky's got a great track record of getting here. You just want to be a part of it and make some history. (Growing) up, you want to make it to the Final Four and try to get to the championship."

But that dream seemed so distant and so unlikely just a year ago when Poythress and Co. were bounced in the first round of the NIT.

It's easy to point to UK's seven McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA players and predict a Final Four is a realistic possibility, but try telling that to last year's stable of McDonald's All-Americans like Poythress who sat in that locker room at Robert Morris and were so far away from this year's run.

"It's just incredible," Poythress said of what a year can do. "It's night and day really. Big difference. I'm just glad we're here and we can actually make some noise."

For Hood and Polson, who had experienced two previous Final Four trips, coming back the game's greatest stage is even sweeter because they now realize just how tough it is to get here.

"You definitely appreciate the Final Four the first time you come, but after last year going straight to the NIT and then losing in the first round and then having to watch and sit through this tournament the entire way without being able to be in, it really tears you apart," Hood said.

Hood and Polson didn't take the first two trips for granted, but to be at the top and get knocked down from it, it's made the climb back oh-so satisfying.

"I wasn't as grateful as I could have been," Polson said. "Just being back here is really cool for me and I'm really grateful for it."

The two seniors have tried relay their perspective to the freshmen who are all experiencing this for the first time and don't know any better.

"The biggest thing that I try to tell the guys is just to be positive with the whole thing and just really experience it because some of the best players in the world have not even experienced a Final Four," Polson said. "This is one of the biggest stages in any sport, so just being able to experience it and have fun with it is the biggest thing."

Because as last year proved, there's no guarantee they'll be back.

"You have to cherish the moment," Hood said. "You have to have fun. You have to live in the moment."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Derek Willis has played the part of Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky in practice this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Derek Willis has played the part of Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky in practice this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Derek Willis has had two personalities in practice this week.

In addition to his normal sweet-shooting 6-foot-9 self, Willis has been assigned to impersonate Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, the 7-footer who has been one of the breakout stars of the NCAA Tournament.

But if you ask Marcus Lee -- one of the UK big men assigned to chase him -- the result is merely one Willis-Kaminsky hybrid that makes life difficult for anyone unfortunate enough to try to guard him.

"He's playing the part of the destroyer," Lee said. "That's what I call Derek: Derek the Destroyer."

Informed early in the week by John Calipari that Willis would be channeling Kaminsky, Lee had a pretty good idea what was about to happen.

"Once it started happening we all kind of stopped and were like, 'Really, Derek?' " Lee said. "Once Coach told us he was going to be (Kaminsky) I was like 'Oh my god. This is gonna happen.' But it's great. I love that Derek's being able to do what he knows he can do."

With the freedom to terrorize Lee, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress as the Cats (28-10) prepare to shadow Kaminsky on Saturday at approximately 8:49 p.m. ET, Willis has indeed enjoyed himself.

"Oh, it's fun," Willis said. "I play similar kind of to Frank Kaminsky. I just like to stay out on the perimeter more, but his game is really cool. It's definitely been fun playing him. You run under screens and come out to the 3-point line, play in the post a lot, so it's been good."

Willis, asked for a closest comparison for Kaminsky, invoked the name of Dirk Nowitzki, the former NBA MVP who plays his games just a few miles away from AT&T Stadium. That's a scary thought for the Wildcats.

"He's a better ball handler than you think," Calipari said. "He bounces it better than you think.  Obviously he's their best 3-point shooter. He's playing with a swagger right now, like, 'None of you can guard me.' "

Over the last three games, Kaminsky has been right to feel that way. In wins over Oregon, Baylor and Arizona, Kaminsky is averaging 22 points and 6.2 rebounds, capped by a dominant 28-point, 11-rebound performance against the top-seeded Wildcats in the Elite Eight.

"We've watched a lot of tape on him," Johnson said. "He's a good inside-out player. We know that it's not going to take one individual to kind of slow him down; it's going to take the whole team."

On the season, Kaminsky is averaging a team-best 14.1 points and 6.4 rebounds to go with 64 blocks, but don't let those less-than-eye-popping numbers fool you. Kaminsky plays on a Badger team known for its deliberate pace, so he has fewer possessions with which to work than most players of his caliber.

Accordingly, he is currently eighth in kenpom.com's tempo-free player of the year standings.

"You can't give him too many easy shots," Randle said. "You can't give him any easy shots, open looks. He can really shoot the ball and he's skilled in the post so whatever you do you gotta try to make it tough for him and play without fouling."

He does his damage all over the floor, hitting 37 3-pointers at a 37.8-percent clip and 58.3 percent from inside the arc. Kaminsky is a 76.5-percent foul shooter, right on his career average, but that's about the only area in which the junior hasn't improved by leaps and bounds over his three college seasons.

"It was difficult growing so much so fast," Kaminsky said. "My biggest battle was with doorways. I used to hit my head on everything. Learning to duck was my first big battle. But I knew once I conquered that, that I would be good going forward."

Clearly, he hasn't lost his sense of humor along the way.

In his first season, Kaminsky scored just 63 points in playing 1.8 minutes per game. A year later, he averaged 4.2 points in an expanded role. Four games into the 2013-14 season, he dropped 43 points on North Dakota, serving notice he was the best player on one of the nation's best teams.

"I'm just trying to make myself effective at this level," Kaminsky said. "I came in as kind of an immature, skinny, weak kid to Wisconsin and have taken steps mentally and physically to try to make myself effective at this level."

How effective Kaminsky is against a Kentucky team likely to be missing the defender best-suited to chase him will go a long way toward deciding who will play for the national championship on Monday.

Willie Cauley-Stein, battling an undisclosed ankle injury, is doubtful for the national semifinal. As engaged as the sophomore 7-footer has been this week, the task of guarding Kaminsky becomes that much tougher with Cauley-Stein on the bench carrying a camera instead of on the floor blocking shots and switching screens.

"If I could tell you Willie were playing, I would feel a little more comfortable because he's a 7-footer that can guard inside and outside and all that," Calipari said. "We don't have that guy if he doesn't play."

Instead, UK is left with four options for primary defenders on Kaminsky, none of which is ideal.

Johnson has improved his conditioning and quickness through the season, but remains a 265-pounder unaccustomed to guarding on the perimeter. Lee has the bounce and length to give Kaminsky problems, but lacks experience even after a breakout performance against Michigan. Finally, Randle and Poythress are athletic enough, but will be at a significant height disadvantage.

"We just have to keep a high hand the whole time," Lee said. "You can't really have hands down because he is a really great shooter and we'll just have to be as big--we have to move our feet a whole lot more."

Given his role this week, Willis would know better than anyone how the Cats are doing with all that. After some natural hiccups in the early going, he likes what he's seen.

"You know, they all really did a good job," Willis said. "We would run through the plays and stuff and they had trouble with it at first because it's a different offense than what we've been seeing. After a couple times going through it, they started to get used to it."

Try as he might -- and Lee reports Willis has gone for as many as 50 points in practice this week -- Willis can't produce a perfect Kaminsky facsimile. The Cats will have to wait until Saturday to see the real thing in action.

"It's a great battle to get through, whoever's going with him," Lee said. "We're just trying to see who's going to be the one to step up and do it."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Interviews with Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young


Interviews with Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein


John Robic hits the half-court shot at open practice


Willie Cauley-Stein is doubtful for UK's Final Four matchup with Wisconsin due to an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein is doubtful for UK's Final Four matchup with Wisconsin due to an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas - Willie Cauley-Stein is out of the boot he had been wearing on his injured left ankle, but the chances he plays Saturday vs. Wisconsin in the Final Four still look slim. 

"Don't count me out yet," Cauley-Stein said Friday during Kentucky's open locker room media availability. "I don't know yet. I'm still figuring out if I want to give it a try or not."

Cauley-Stein, who took some shots during UK's open practice but still had a noticeable limp walking to and from the locker room, said his ankle is doing better and said "there's always a possibility" he could play. But he also realizes the long-term implications of rushing back if his ankle isn't healed.

"It could get worse or it could, you know, stay the same, but that's kind of the unknown is could it get worse and then have to do something worse than I thought I was going to have to," said Cauley-Stein, who left the game at the 13:05 mark of the Louisville game and hasn't returned since.

As for what the actual ankle injury is, Cauley-Stein isn't shedding much light. Asked if it was a possible stress fracture, Cauley-Stein said "it could be that," but that he wasn't listening when the team doctor was doing an X-ray on it.

He said he was "checked out" at the time.

"They thought it was a really bad sprain," Cauley-Stein said. "There's just so many different things. It was swollen when they took an X-ray on it so you really couldn't tell anything."

Cauley-Stein believes the injury is actually a pre-existing one that finally gave out.

"I think I injured it during the K-State game in the second half and I just played for the rest of that weekend and then practiced on it," he said. "And then I went into the Louisville game still hurting and I honestly, the whole week, was just babying it. Like if I had to turn around real quick I would hop on one foot and not really turn around on that foot. And then in the game I just forgot about it and then I just tried to do it normal and I just heard this pop. That's when you see me limping and stuff."

Cauley-Stein said the ankle feels better than it did the day before and the day before that.

"When I was first on crutches and in a boot I probably really needed the crutches and the boot," he said. "Now when I try to walk on it and run a little bit--pretty much just scooted around and dragged it (before); I didn't really walk on it. Now I can walk heel to toe a little bit. It's just feeling better all around."

Does that mean we could see a Willis Reed-like emergence Saturday against Wisconsin? Reed, in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, played through a torn muscle and started against the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed made the New York Knicks' first two baskets before leaving the game and not returning, but he's long been credited with inspiring his teammates to victory and an NBA championship.

Cauley-Stein wasn't sure who Reed was when he was asked about him Friday but he pointed out the circumstances of his injury are completely different.

"It being in my foot and my ankle, like you really can't move laterally or anything like that," Cauley-Stein said. "You can just limp or kind of hobble around. If it was on my like thigh or my hip or something like that it would be easier and I would feel like all that weight's not directly on that spot that's hurting."

Cauley-Stein admitted it's hurt to watch from the bench the last two games.

"This is what you work so hard for and then to have it taken away from you is really heartbreaking," he said. "You just kind of have to lose yourself in your teammates and be happy for what they're accomplishing and just enjoy the ride with them."

He plans on doing exactly that regardless of whether he plays this weekend.

"I want them to get to Monday and do something special," Cauley-Stein said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Dezerea Bryant (Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire) Dezerea Bryant (Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire)
Entering this the third weekend of the outdoor track and field season, members of the team will have perhaps their best chance this year to perform at their best,

A select group of Wildcats produced times/marks in the first two weeks of the year that will be good enough to rank in the top-32 of the Region and qualify for the NCAA East Preliminary Championships.

The rest of the Wildcats have but one goal this regular season: to record a qualifying time/mark.

Pretty much nothing else matters until that mark is recorded. Only after getting a mark does the focus shift toward tapering training in preparation for the championship season.

And almost all of the Wildcats who got their qualifying times early are now in search of qualifying in other events.

Should the forecast hold, this weekend could be as good a time as ever to get those so-far elusive times and marks.

The majority of the top Wildcats will compete at the Florida Relays in Gainesville, Fla., where the weather on Friday is expected to be in the 80s and sunny. Three of UK's top distance runners have traveled to Stanford, Calif., to run against the nation's elite when it comes to multi-lap races.

Head coach Edrick Floreal chose those two meet locales for this weekend quite consciously. During the spring months in the United States, the time of year upon which the heart of the collegiate track and field season resides, weather is unpredictable.

At least of Friday in Florida it will be sunny and warm. In Northern California Floreal knows as well as anyone that sunshine seems to be a permanent condition, even if it may be a bit cool.

"You don't know what the weather is going to be the rest of the year," Floreal told the team on Thursday. "Everything else could be rained out. The rest of the regular season, our meets are mostly in and around Kentucky and we have the Penn Relays in Philadelphia and Triton Invitational in San Diego for throwers.

"You never know what the weather is going to be like. It could be really cold and rainy the rest of the year. This weekend we're going to have good weather so my suggestion is to take advantage."

Indeed bad weather will not be an excuse for the Wildcats competing on Friday. Similarly, competition level will not be a category worthy of complaint.

Both the Florida Relays and Stanford Invitational boast fields that rival any meet all season. Both are littered with national champions and All-Americans.

The Florida Relays has a strong reputation as one of the best early-season meets for the top sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers.

The Stanford Invitational, in contrast, is widely considered the nation's top early-season meet for elite distance runners. Many of those distance standouts will make their outdoor debuts there.

Floreal is all too aware of this. After all, he was largely responsible for building and enhancing the Invitational's reputation when he was director of track and field at Stanford for six seasons between 2006-2012.

Both the ideal weather and competitiveness of the Florida Relays and Stanford Invitational could mean the UK track and field teams are in for some eye-catching results this weekend.

At least that's the plan.

What to Watch
Kendra Harrison's 400m hurdles debut

Kendra Harrison ran the fastest 100m hurdles time by any American this season last weekend at the Texas Relays. She will follow that up this weekend by debuting in the 400m hurdles at Florida Relays.

After hurdling only over 60 meters throughout the indoor season, the UK coaching staff has now determined she has developed the stamina needed for what many consider track and field's most grueling event: 400 meters over hurdles.

Harrison's debut will be eagerly anticipated across the country. She is the top returner from the 2013 NCAA Championships in the event. She placed fourth; the top-three finishers were seniors.

Bryant's first 200 meters outside

Dezerea Bryant, the 2014 NCAA Indoor 200m Champion, will compete at the distance for the first time outdoors this year.

The 200m at Florida Relays will provide Bryant with a nice early test. The field's other headliner is Kyra Jefferson of Florida, who was runner-up to Bryant at the NCAA Championships.

Bryant certainly showed she's still in strong form last weekend at Texas Relays. She ran the fourth fastest all-conditions 100m dash in the world this year, a wind-assisted 11.13 (+2.7).

Kayla Parker's Florida homecoming
The Florida Relays will provide a homecoming of sorts for team captain and All-American hurdler Kayla Parker.

Parker is a native of Port Saint Joe on the Panhandle. She is scheduled to compete in the 100m hurdles, in her home state for the first time in a few years, certainly since she emerged as one of the SEC's best.

Throwers look to continue progression
Kentucky boasts a strong group of throwers littered with All-Americans.

But for the first few weeks this year, few of those Wildcats have performed at their best so far this outdoor campaign. That's not something to panic about, it's still quite early and even below their best, some have already posted qualifying marks.

Still UK's throwers are a competitive group. They want to win. This weekend will provide such an opportunity.

Distance outlook
Matt Hillenbrand and Adam Kahleifeh finished 1-2 in the SEC Indoor 3,000m Championship. They'll make their 5k debut at the Stanford Invitational looking to take advantage of a fast field.

Mackay Wilson will look to do the same in the 3k steeplechase as he races that event for the first time since the 2013 NCAA East Regional.

Those three traveled to Stanford separate from the rest of UK's elite runners, who journeyed to Florida. for one basic reason: to run fast against other fast runners.

Aaron Harrison has scored 15 points combined in the final five minutes of UK's last three games. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison has scored 15 points combined in the final five minutes of UK's last three games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Anyone who's watched Kentucky's last three games needs not be told the Wildcats have been clutch in advancing to the Final Four.

When UK needs a big 3-pointer, there's Aaron Harrison or James Young. When the Cats need an important free throw, Andrew Harrison calmly steps to the line.

You surely remember many of the big plays UK used to take down three 2013 Final Four teams. But until you look back on the collection of them all, it's not entirely clear just how good the Cats have been when it mattered most.

UK has had 22 total possessions that started in the final five minutes of wins over Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan and scored a ridiculous average of two points per possession. Only twice has UK come up empty on a possession during the stretch, and never when trailing.

It began against Wichita State with the Cats down five and on the brink of a round-of-32 exit. With no room for error, UK scored on its final seven possessions -- 14 points and two points per possession -- and survived a last-second 3-point attempt by Fred VanVleet to advance. The Cats hit 9 of 12 free throws, 2 of 3 from the field and grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive.

Against U of L, the Cats were down 64-57 when they took over with 4:48 to go. Aaron Harrison snared a defensive rebound, raced the length of the floor, drew a foul and hit two free throws to get his team going for the game's final nine possessions. Including Aaron Harrison's free throws, UK would score on eight of those possessions, racking up 16 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, 7 of 8 from the line and another two offensive rebounds.

To clinch a spot in the Final Four, the Cats just didn't miss at all. Protecting a one-point lead against Michigan, UK made its final five shots, including three 3s by Aaron Harrison. The only empty possession came on a shot-clock violation, UK's only turnover in the final five minutes of any of their last three games.

Here are the composite offensive stats for all three games:

  • 22 possessions
  • 44 points
  • Two points per possession
  • 11 of 15 (73.3 percent) from the field
  • 5 of 6 (83.3 percent) from 3
  • 17 of 21 (80.1 percent) from the free-throw line
  • One turnover
  • Four rebounds on seven free misses (offensive-rebounding percentage of .571)

And believe it or not, UK has even better when trailing:

  • Nine possessions
  • 21 points
  • 2.33 points per possession
  • 6 of 8 (75 percent) from the field
  • 2 of 2 from 3
  • 6 of 8 (75 percent) from the line
  • Zero turnovers
  • Four rebounds on five free misses (offensive-rebounding percentage of .800)

In playing three straight instant classics, UK has likely raised the collective blood pressure of the Big Blue Nation. The Cats, however, hardly seem to register a pulse when it comes to crunch time.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


ARLINGTON, Texas -- With everything going on in Orlando Antigua's head these days, if he can sleep it's from pure exhaustion.

As Kentucky prepares for Wisconsin in the Final Four, Antigua's not only worrying about how to slow down Frank Kaminsky and the highly efficient Badger offense, he's also got a new program to build, players to recruit and a foundation to set at South Florida, where he took the head-coaching job on Monday.

Fortunately for Antigua and the Cats, USF gave Antigua permission to stay through UK's Final Four run this weekend, allowing Antigua to focus on finishing Kentucky's late-season run.

"You try to take one thing at a time right now," Antigua said. "Mark (Harlan) has been gracious to obviously allow me to finish out this run that we have going. I try to text message with the kids back at South Florida just to make sure that they're watching and taking care of their academics while we're here."

His kids right now, though, still wear blue and white and they've still got an objective to complete at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. Antigua said those kids "look great" heading into Saturday's national semifinals.

"They're working hard," Antigua said. "Crazy enough, still got room to grow. That's exciting us. We're trying to push them every day."

Antigua got emotional at Monday's USF press conference in Tampa, Fla., when he started to think about and thank everyone who helped him earn the head-coaching opportunity. Those people included the players, who were "ecstatic" for their coach.

"When I got back from the press conference they all started busting my chops," Antigua said. "But it's great. They're a great group of kids and I'm really happy for the experience that I got a chance to have by being at Kentucky and being with the staff. The administration has been phenomenal and the relationships that I've built there will be relationships that I think I'll have for the rest of my career."

Of course, one of the most important and most influential relationships he had was with John Calipari, whom Antigua has served under for the last six seasons (five at Kentucky and one at Memphis).

Antigua said he's always wanted to become a head coach since getting into the business, but it took some mentoring and experience from working under Coach Cal and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh to prepare him to run his own program.

"(Calipari) taught me how to adjust to the personnel that you have, how to keep challenging kids, how to keep raising the bar," Antigua said.

In the coming months and years we'll see if Calipari taught him how to schedule. Asked Thursday if he'd get a home-and-home series with UK given the connections, Antigua smiled knowing full well that negotiating a deal like that with Coach Cal won't be so easy.

"I hope so," he said. "I hope to eventually maybe work something out, but haven't even gotten that far down the line."

Capture the flag


By now you are probably well aware of the type of historic path Kentucky has had to conquer to make it to the Final Four.

Among the most notable achievements:

  • UK is the first school even to knock off three of the four Final Four teams from the previous season
  • According to Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports, the Cats' path, seeding-wise, is the toughest any team has had to navigate since LSU in 1986.

Thursday, at the first of two Final Four media appearances, Coach Cal said he didn't even know what to call what the Cats just went through.

"We got here through an absolute mine field and happened to not step on a mine," he said.

Now that they can see the flag they're trying to capture, Calipari is trying to make sure his guys don't wander off their path and step on one of those mines.

"Now my whole mission is to make sure we're not satisfied, that this team is still striving," he said.

Still freshmen

There's a notion among some coaches that when you get to this stage in the year, freshmen are no longer freshmen. Some like to say they have the experience of a sophomore and can play like veterans.

Last Calipari checked, his freshmen hadn't been granted any type of waiver to skip a year in college.

"They're still freshmen," Calipari said.

But there is some truth that these freshmen are more experienced than any other ones in college. UK's freshmen have accounted for 75.3 percent of the Cats' minutes this year.

It took nearly every second for them to finally capitalize on that experience.

"It took us four months," Calipari said. "So now they got it. They're young. It takes time. You cannot skip steps. We all want to skip steps. We all want freshmen to be sophomores and juniors."

It's Kentucky - what do you expect?


It didn't take long for Calipari to answer a reporter's question on Thursday as to why his program can sometimes be a magnet for criticism.

"It's Kentucky," Coach Cal quickly shot back.

The reporter, a little surprised by such a quick answer, then wondered if he had a sense that some people enjoyed when UK was struggling in the regular season. Again, Calipari had the same answer.

"It's Kentucky," he said. "It's what you buy into if you want to coach at Kentucky or play at Kentucky. You got some guys with agendas. You got some guys that, you know, it's that program. It's part of it."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK, Wisconsin not so different after all

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Julius Randle and Ben Brust share the podium on Thursday at AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle and Ben Brust share the podium on Thursday at AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky and Wisconsin are being cast as a study in contrasting styles.

In one corner there are the Wildcats, the crew of super-talented youngsters, and the other the Badgers, the veterans who rely on cohesiveness and half-court execution.

Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, however, doesn't exactly see things that way.

"Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole," Ryan said on Monday. "We're trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying to keep them from doing it. They're trying to keep us from doing it. I didn't know there were that many styles."

There's certainly some truth to Ryan's words, but it's also a bit of an oversimplification.

UK and Wisconsin, of course, are teams that get the job done on both ends of the floor in different ways. Let's explore kenpom.com's advanced statistics to explore those differences.

When Kentucky is on offense

Julius Randle has always been a basketball fan, so he was familiar with Wisconsin before UK even began scouting the Badgers for the Final Four.

"Just growing up I've always known Wisconsin just to be a hard-nosed, tough team," Randle said. "They play really good defense."

That's true again this year, as Wisconsin ranks 45th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Badgers are sound defensively on the strength of their ability to play without fouling and close out possessions with defensive rebounds.

Wisconsin is third nationally in defensive free-throw rate, yielding just 15.1 free-throw attempts per game. By contrast, UK is ninth nationally in offensive free-throw rate. Don't think, however, that the Cats can't get the job done when they aren't getting to the line. Against Michigan, UK scored 1.26 points per possession -- its highest total of the tournament -- in spite of hitting just six free throws in 11 attempts.

The Badgers are also tireless workers on the defensive glass, ranking 13th in rebounding rate, but they haven't faced Kentucky yet. The Cats lead the nation in offensive-rebounding rate, claiming 42.5 percent of their own misses. And less than two weeks ago, UK faced off against an even better defensive rebounding team in Wichita State and still snagged 10 of its 29 misses.

Wisconsin relies on sound positioning in its man defense, not often gambling to force turnovers. The Badgers' opponents have committed turnovers on just 15.6 percent of possessions (322nd nationally) while UK is middle of the pack (174th nationally) taking care of the ball.

Just because the Badgers don't force many turnovers, don't think passing the ball against them is easy. Wisconsin allows assists on just 40.1 percent of opponents' made field goals, the third-lowest rate in the nation.

Also of note is that just 25.8 percent of field goals attempted against Wisconsin come from 3-point range, the eighth-lowest rate in the nation. Though UK is shooting the ball remarkably well, this isn't necessarily bad news for UK. The Cats are at their best when they attack the basket.

When Kentucky is on defense


As good as Randle has always known Wisconsin to be on defense, he's not oblivious to the fact that the Badgers are among the best offensive teams in the country even though they score just 73.5 points per game.

"Of course, our team's already been informed that this is one of the better offensive teams that they have had, and they really can score the ball, move the ball," Randle said.

Thanks to that ball movement, the Badgers almost never turn the ball over. Wisconsin has committed single-digit turnovers in 26 of 37 games, including two remarkable two-turnover performances, en route to ranking second in turnover rate. Considering UK is 301st in defensive turnover rate, don't expect many Wisconsin mistakes on Saturday evening.

With UK's size advantage and Wisconsin's preference for getting back on defense over crashing the glass, don't expect many Badger offensive rebounds either. Wisconsin is 274th nationally in offensive-rebounding rate.

The Badgers get by on offense without many rebounds because they shoot the ball so well to begin with. Wisconsin is 32nd nationally in effective field-goal percentage (.533) and UK 35th in effective field-goal percentage defense (.458). The team that wins this battle could well be playing for the national championship on Monday.

Bottom line

Tempo has a lot to do with the supposed contrast between Kentucky and Wisconsin, but a look at the numbers reveals two teams more similar than you might think.

Wisconsin ranks 287th nationally in adjusted tempo, playing just 63.4 possessions per game. UK, meanwhile, is 226th in adjusted tempo, playing just 66.2 possessions per game and 61 in the NCAA Tournament.

As friends John Calipari and Ryan match wits for the first time, be prepared for a grind-it-out affair. The pace might not be frenetic and the final score might be in the 60s, but these are two teams playing their best offense of the season.

"You're playing for either one of these teams, I mean, there's no such thing as an underdog," Randle said. "It's just going to be a hard-fought game, and I think that's what both teams are looking forward to."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Antigua on taking USF job, time at UK

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Calipari hopes to rebrand one-and-done

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John Calipari and Bo Ryan at their Final Four press conference on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari and Bo Ryan at their Final Four press conference on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ever since a record-setting five Kentucky players went in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft, the "one-and-done" label has been pinned on John Calipari and his program like a tail on a donkey.

For better or worse, Kentucky has become, reputation-wise, the place to go to play for a year and then head to the NBA after one season.

Calipari, who has long maintained that he's against the one-and-done rule but is playing by the rules, doesn't understand why kids are criticized for pursuing their dreams if the opportunity presents itself.

"Until this rule changes to two years, which I seem be one of the guys working real hard on it, we are where we are," Coach Cal said on Monday on his weekly radio show. " 'Well, you should care more about the programs than the kids.' What about if it's your kid? 'That would be different then? Then I want you to care about my kid than the program.' These are someone's children."

Greg Anthony, a former UNLV star and analyst for CBS, spoke on a Final Four teleconference earlier in the week and said he is sick of hearing about the one-and-done rule altogether. After all, UK isn't the only program that went after the John Walls and the Anthony Davises in high school; it just so happens to be the one that landed the most.

"I'm so tired of everyone talking about the one-and-done from this standpoint: Every one of those damn kids for Kentucky, everyone else would have signed them if they decided to go there," Anthony said. "Every high-school kid coming in as a freshman would go one-and-done if they had ability for the most part."

It's worth noting that one-and-done talent like Andrew Wiggins went to Kansas, Aaron Gordon went to Arizona and Jabari Parker went to Duke.

But the one-and-done rule is a hot subject again at this week's Final Four because of the unprecedented youth and potential NBA players Calipari has brought to Arlington, Texas. On its road to the Final Four - a path Coach Cal called a "mine field" - UK has relied heavily on its youth, starting five freshmen throughout the tournament and getting 89.8 percent of its points from freshmen.

As a point of reference, the famous Fab Five accounted for 75.3 percent of Michigan's scoring during the 1991-92 season. The Cats' freshmen, many of whom will have an NBA decision to make after the NCAA Tournament run ends, have accounted for 81.8 percent on the season.

With all that said, a young player helping a team to the Final Four and then weighing his pro aspirations at the end of the season is still perceived negatively among the masses.

"One-and-done has now become a bad connotation," Coach Cal said.

And until the rules change, the negative perception is here to say, Calipari realizes. No matter how many times he says they don't talk about turning pro until after the season, it's going to be viewed in a dim light.

So Coach Cal has a solution: a new name.

"We're going to break out something new this week to get you guys off this one-and-done so that we can think about (it) in another term, which is trying to help these kids do what they're trying to do as college students, as where they want their careers to go," Calipari said.

The idea behind the rebranding is to change the idea that just because a player may turn pro early that he isn't a college athlete.

"Does a player have to be here four years to be a terrific college player?" Calipari said. "The last four years, our grade-point average has been a 3.0. Our (NCAA Academic Progress Rate) is as high as anybody in the country. They're college students; they're just not college students for four years in most cases, but in some they are."

So, Calipari hopes to unveil something this weekend - perhaps during the next media availability on Friday - that will get that message across. What it is remains to be seen, but Coach Cal did ask for answers on his radio show earlier in the week and actually received some via social media.

Among the best were "Succeed then Proceed," "Learn then Earn" "Learn and Turn."

They're all better than the one-and-done label in the eyes of Calipari.

"All I got to say to Cal is when somebody asks me about one-and-done, all I remember is when my mom would give me a pork chop or a piece of meatloaf and I would ask for another piece and she would say, 'No, one-and-done,' " Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said.

Ryan is confident that if the name isn't going to change, the rules will soon. Perhaps the bad connotation will die with it.

"We're (Calipari and Ryan) both on the board of directors with the NABC and we have talked about this quite a bit," Ryan said. "I'm sure there's something coming down the road that's going to alter that. But all we know is we just want our players to get the most out of the experience and I think we both are coaching guys that understand what that's all about."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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If you are looking for 'Cats 2014 Final Four merchandise, look no further than the official store of UK Athletics, UKTeamShop.com. UK Team Shop has the best choice of Final Four apparel, including the Nike Locker Room T-shirt the players wore after the big win over Michigan. Click on the link below to see the full selection.

http://www.ukteamshop.com/source/bmbh_ukfinal4

Gymnastics looking for consistency in NCAA Regionals

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Kentucky set a school record at Penn State in the regular season finale last season. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Kentucky set a school record at Penn State in the regular season finale last season. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Consistency.

Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, the Kentucky gymnastics team has turned in solid performances on each of the four events in a meet. However, it's putting it all together at once that will allow Kentucky's season to live on, which the Wildcats have yet to do this season.

UK head coach Tim Garrison has preached consistency to his team as the NCAA Regional quickly approaches. It's the one thing that has escaped his team throughout the course of the season, and in order for Kentucky to advance to the NCAA Championships in Birmingham, the Cats will need to heed the message.

"We still have yet to put a complete meet together," said Garrison who is in his third season at UK. "In my mind, we've improved in a lot of ways; we still haven't shown 100 percent of that improvement all at one time, which is something we're looking forward to doing this weekend."

The Wildcats will put their skills to the test this weekend in State College, Pa., joining No. 1 Florida, No. 12 Oregon State, No. 15 Penn State, New Hampshire and Maryland in the program's 26th NCAA appearance, including 10 straight. In the 25 previous appearances, UK has never advanced to the NCAA Championships. Hence the reason Garrison has instilled the concept that his team needs to be consistent to earn a top two finish and a berth in the NCAA Championships.

This year's NCAA Regional has put the Wildcats in a great position to claim that first NCAA Finals appearance. For instance, Kentucky is familiar with the venue in State College, having competed at Penn State last season. Coincidentally, the Wildcats registered a school record mark of 196.775 in the regular season finale at Penn State's Rec Hall, which is where this weekend's regional will be held.

Also, earlier this season, UK defeated Penn State in the season-opening meet, as part of a four-team event in Lexington.

"We think we have a favorable draw, I think for several different reasons," Garrison explained. "One, we're comfortable with Penn State. We're comfortable with the arena. We've competed against Penn State this year and had a favorable result. Obviously, that was the first meet of the year, but still it was a good result for us, so we're comfortable with that fact."

It all starts with building momentum.

Many times a meet can be determined with how a team starts. Garrison is hoping his team can build some early momentum to control the jitters and settle his team down to begin a consistent performance.

"Obviously we need a good start on bars," Garrison said. "There's a bit of momentum that comes along with getting into a competition and doing well and building momentum. It has to start somewhere and that momentum is going to have to start on bars. I'm looking for consistency. I'm looking to save every tenth we can possibly save. I'm looking to build momentum. I'm looking to put pressure on the other teams."

Kentucky's rotation will be bars, beam, bye, floor and vault. The rotation gives the Wildcats an early chance to build momentum, as the uneven bars have proven to be a good event this season.

"We have a great rotation," Garrison said. "We're starting off on bars, which is a good event for us. We go to beam, which is second, and we're settling down and we're into the competition by that point. Then we go to floor and we finish off on vault. Floor and vault this year are two very strong events for us, so we're looking forward to finishing on strong events."

Senior Audrey Harrison, who will compete in all four events, will carry some of the burden of building and sustaining that momentum and consistency.

"I definitely think we have a great chance this year," said Harrison about the team advancing to the NCAA Championships. "It's definitely possible and our confidence has been building throughout the season, so I think it can all come together and we can hit all four events at the same time, which would be awesome."

Every little detail matters when postseason arrives. Building momentum to start the meet is vital. Consistency throughout the competition is crucial.

The stage is set for the Wildcats, now they just have to take advantage.

"I think we're going to have to have a good day," Garrison said. "I think we have the team. I think we have the draw. It really is set up well for us to be successful in many different ways. Every region is going to be tough. You have six teams going in and they're all very competitive or else they wouldn't be there. You have to be one of the top two teams to come out of the region. They're going to be tough, every single one of them."

Kelsey Nunley pitched a complete-game shutout in UK's win over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Kelsey Nunley pitched a complete-game shutout in UK's win over Louisville on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The No. 12 Kentucky softball team used a complete performance in all facets of the game Wednesday night in its 5-0 win over Louisville.
 
After a 1-2 weekend against then-No. 21 Auburn, a complete, well-played game against their in-state rivals was just what the Wildcats needed.
 
Head coach Rachel Lawson got just the turnaround performance that she was hoping for.
 
"I thought it was big," Lawson said. "Auburn was a tough weekend. I know we took one from them, Auburn is a very good team, but I felt like we really didn't play our best game against Auburn. 
 
"Some things were exposed that we needed to work on, and the fact that we were able to work on them and turn around so quickly really shows that the girls have their minds in the right spot and they want to get it done and go deep in the postseason."
 
UK out-hit the Cardinals 7-3, and was able to take advantage of two errors that led to a pair of unearned runs. The first five batters in the Kentucky lineup all reached base at least once.
 
While the run production was a highlight, the well-rounded game started in the circle for the Wildcats. After Kelsey Nunley allowed one run and five hits in seven innings of work Sunday, she came back even better on Wednesday. The sophomore hurled a complete game shutout and allowed just three hits and two walks.
 
"I thought Nunley was incredible," Lawson said. "I thought she was great on Sunday. The fact that she was able to turn around four days later and do it again says a lot about how strong she is as a pitcher. The fact that she was able to change her game a little bit and keep them off balance, they're an awesome hitting team. The fact that she didn't let very many of them square up on the ball really says how much stuff she has and how she's able to put the team on her back and carry them."
 
Defense was a point of emphasis the last few days, and it showed Wednesday night. 
 
In the field, the Wildcats didn't commit a single error and turned several dazzling defensive plays to extinguish any Louisville scoring opportunities.
 
"We really worked on hustling," Nikki Sagermann said.. "Making every play, not giving up. Just keeping on running hard and competing on every play."
 
The team worked on it, and Lawson noticed.
 
"I was really impressed with them," Lawson said of the defensive effort. "Overall I'm really pleased with our defense, and I thought that was the difference early."
 
Without senior captain Lauren Cumbess, who is day-to-day with an ankle injury, the offense didn't miss a beat.
 
"I think the best part about it was the last few days we had really been working on our approach, getting more aggressive," Lawson said. "It was so nice to see the team step up. I think they knew because Lauren wasn't in the lineup, that each person was going to have to chip in a little extra, and I thought they really responded and we put up five runs against a really good Louisville team."
 
The win marked the first time UK had beaten U of L in back-to-back games in Lawson's seven-year tenure. The Wildcats will have a chance to go for three consecutive wins at the end of the month on April 30 in Louisville.
 
In the meantime, the Wildcats will look to build on Wednesday's win when they host SEC-foe and 18th-ranked Texas A&M at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. First pitch Friday and Saturday is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET, while Sunday's contest will commence at 1 p.m.

Julius Randle will return to his hometown of Dallas for the Final Four this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle will return to his hometown of Dallas for the Final Four this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Julius Randle was a high-school junior sitting in study hall when he first found out.

His schoolwork done, Randle came across the news that the Final Four would be coming to AT&T Stadium in 2014. Thinking two years in his future, Randle pictured himself a college freshman playing for a national championship mere miles from where he grew up.

He hasn't stopped thinking about it since.

"It's been my screensaver for about two years," Randle said.

A year after he first found out North Texas would host the Final Four, Randle was in AT&T Stadium. Watching Florida and Michigan play in the Elite Eight just weeks after committing to Kentucky, Randle's focus only intensified.

"I just wanted to make sure I did whatever I could to get back there," Randle said. "It's just added motivation that it's in Dallas, but any kid wants to play in the Final Four. I don't care if it's on the moon. You want to play in the Final Four. But for it to be in my hometown, it's special as well."

It became even more special last weekend when playing in the Final Four went from dream to reality for Randle.

Randle's mother, Carolyn Kyles, was in Indianapolis as her only son played in the Midwest Regional semifinals and finals. She saw all of UK's comeback victory over Louisville on Friday, but had to leave Randle's Elite Eight game against Michigan early to catch a flight home so she could work first thing on Monday morning.

"I knew she was going to have to leave so I just wanted to make sure we won so I could see her again," Randle said.

Randle -- the Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player -- delivered. Now, he gets to go home and play on college basketball's biggest stage in front of his mother.

"She's really excited," Randle said. "I don't know much she's going to be around because I know she wants me to focus and stuff, but she's really excited and so is the rest of my family."

To Randle, that kind of unselfishness is what defines his mother above all else.

"Just seeing her every day get up, go to work and just take care of me and my sister and for her to do it by herself and for her not to have much and to make sure me and my sister felt like we had everything we needed and wanted just goes to show how strong of a woman she is," Randle said. "She did it all by herself."

Of course, paying his mother back for all she's done helps drive Randle to be the tireless worker he is on and off the floor. But Kyles has refused to let that overwhelm her son.

"She's always telling me just to enjoy being a college student, not to worry about her, not to worry about taking care of her," Randle said. "She says to enjoy being a college student because she doesn't want to put that type of pressure on me and there's no need to. I'm just blessed to be here, play basketball at Kentucky and that's all I can really focus on."

It's that kind of perspective, character and strong family background John Calipari saw early in Randle's recruiting process.

"The best thing that has happened for him is that he surrounded by good people, and they all tell him the truth," Calipari said. "They tell him the truth. ... His mother is solid; she left the game early because she had to go to work."

The same goes for the Harrison twins, who will also be returning to their home state for UK's Saturday national semifinal matchup with Wisconsin. Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Randle give Coach Cal three players from the Lone Star State, which was unthinkable 20 years ago.

"When I was back at UMass and went into Texas, the coaches asked if we were Division I or Division II, so we didn't do real well then," Calipari said.

Doing well in Texas has become more and more important over the years. Though the state is still known for the bright lights of football, basketball has come a long way.

"Where Texas was always just about football, it still is, Friday nights and all that stuff," Calipari said. "But the coaching in Texas, the high-school coaching, has gone from the (football) line coach coaching the basketball team, to basketball coaches, basketball junkies, coaching basketball now. So now all of a sudden you're getting skilled players."

UK's Texas trio certainly fits that bill, benefitting from solid coaching on both their high school and AAU teams. The Harrisons, however, did dabble in football before switching to basketball full time. Andrew Harrison was a running back but was too lanky at the time to continue into high school.

"If it's not during the season, you have to do 7-on-7 or something like that," Andrew Harrison said. "We wanted to play basketball."

Based on the volume of ticket requests the Harrison twins are receiving for this weekend, they might have converted some football lovers with that choice. Aaron Harrison reported around 50 friends and family have asked for tickets and his brother the same, while Randle is forwarding all such requests to his mother.

"You can call my mom," Randle said. "I'm not dealing with it. I changed my number."

But not his screensaver

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

John Calipari will coach in his third Final Four in four seasons on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will coach in his third Final Four in four seasons on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There are two in-game situations that will almost always divide fans and coaches alike.

One is the debate over whether to call a timeout when you have the ball to win the game. The other is whether to foul when your team is up three to prevent a game-tying 3-pointer.

Coach Cal found himself in both those situations against Michigan.

First was when the Wolverines tied the game with 27 seconds to go and the Cats got the ball with a chance to win on the final possession. Under normal circumstances, Calipari would have let his guys play so the other team couldn't set up defensively, but like he did against Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, he called timeout.

Calipari said after that game that he wanted to kick himself for calling timeout, but not this time around.

"There was so much at stake here, we had to know what we were doing," Calipari said on his weekly radio show Monday night. "And part of the reason is they had a foul to give, so I figured we had to start a little bit earlier so they would foul earlier so that we would still have a lot of time to get a shot off, which they did."

The timeout allowed him to call up a similar play to the one in the SEC Tournament finals, which was a handoff for James Young to take it to the basket; only this time it called for Aaron Harrison to get the ball.

"I wanted it to be Aaron because he wouldn't be afraid to miss," Calipari said. "Not that James is, but Aaron now in the last five games has been an assassin."

Aaron Harrison had the option to dribble it or pull up. When he fumbled the handoff and the shot clock started winding down, he elected to go up with it.

Once Michigan had called timeout and the officials reset the clock to show 2.6 seconds left, Calipari decided not to foul because there wasn't enough time left on the clock. With only seconds left, he didn't want one of his players fouling the shooter in the act.

He also put Marcus Lee on the inbounds pass in hopes of tipping the pass and taking the shot out of the equation altogether.

Bigger isn't always better

Dominique Hawkins doesn't have the look of a lockdown defender - at 6 feet, he looks to be at a size disadvantage - but the Kentucky reserve re-emerged from the bench during UK's two games in Indianapolis to help contain Louisville and Michigan's best scorers.

Against U of L, Hawkins locked down and limited Russ Smith in the second half, and against Michigan, Hawkins slowed down Nik Stauskas after his fast start.

"We weren't going to win that game until he guarded that kid," Calipari said Monday of the Hawkins-Stauskas matchup. "And he was a pit bull."

Stauskas, who at 6-6 had torched his competition all year long because of an ability to shoot over most defenders, had six inches on Hawkins.

"A lot of times, putting a little smaller guy on a bigger guy bothers 'em," Calipari said. "I don't know why. Just does."

Hawkins knows why. It's the competition he goes against every day in practice. Matching up with players like Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young, he's learned a few tricks to neutralize the length.

"Those three, I feel like they could be the best player on any other team if they went on another team," Hawkins said. "They help me out on my defense in practice a lot, so I feel like when I was guarding him that it was just like guarding James or Aaron or Andrew off the ball in practice."

One and done with

Fed up with the label that gets thrown on his program for allowing players to go to the NBA, Coach Cal said on the radio show Monday that he wished someone could come up with a new term that doesn't have the negative connotation that "one and done" does.

The Big Blue Nation listened and responded. Among some of the best responses from fans on Twitter:

  • Succeed then proceed
  • Learn and turn
  • Learn before you earn
  • Progressive freshmen

Of course, Coach Cal has not wavered in his stance on the current one-and-done rule. He has said he does not believe in it and wishes it would go to at least two years, but he's also not going to hold kids back if they have an opportunity to leave.

He just wishes the negative connotation of letting players pursue their dreams would go away.

"I know some people can't get their mind wrapped around anything other than a four-year program," Calipari said. "Well, you also can't get your mind wrapped around social media. And until this rule changes to two years, which I seem be one of the guys working real hard on it, we are where we are. 'Well, you should care more about the programs than the kids.' What about if it's your kid? 'That would be different then? Then I want you to care about my kid than the program.' These are someone's children."

An all-time run

It's already been well-documented that UK's road to the Final Four has been one of the all-time runs.

Not only have the Cats knocked off the defending national champion, last year's runner-up and an undefeated No. 1 seed, they've become the first team ever to knock off three of last year's Final Four teams.  

But according to Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports, UK's run may be the all-time run.

Eisenberg's research says that the seeding tally of UK's opponents (16) is only outdone by LSU in 1986, when the 11th-seeded Tigers beat the top three seeds in their region to reach the Final Four - the only team to ever accomplish such a feat.

Eisenberg points out that LSU caught a break by playing its opening-weekend games in its backyard in Baton Rouge, La.

Did Bo Ryan take a dig at BBN? Cal doesn't think so

On Monday's Final Four teleconference, some thought Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan was taking a dig at Kentucky fans when he answered a question about what basketball means to the Cheese State.

"The people here in this state are crazy about basketball," Ryan said. "They realize that they didn't invent it like some other states believe."

Did he mean Kentucky when he said that? It goes without saying that UK fans are known throughout the country for their passion for basketball.

Told Tuesday of Ryan's comments, Calipari, who has a good relationship with Ryan, brushed it off.

"Our people don't think they invented it; they just made it better," Coach Cal said. "And our fans do have all the answers to every issue concerning basketball. They're crazy. They're nuts. They watch the tapes more than I do. I bet you there are fans out there that have watched more Wisconsin tape than I have. There's no question."

Bo knows

Some other notable gems from Ryan on Monday's Final Four teleconference:

On Kentucky ...
"For me to say Kentucky is good, I'd be slighting them. They are very good."

On the contrast in styles between UK and Wisconsin ...

"Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying to keep them from doing it. They're trying to keep us from doing it. I didn't know there were that many styles."

On why he doesn't use a coaching board ...
"Have you ever watched a huddle, where the players' eyes are while the coach is making 15 lines? You look at that thing and you swear it was your 4-year-old granddaughter who just made a drawing for you."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: UK heads to Texas

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Departure and arrival from Kentucky Wildcats TV


Hotel arrival from the NCAA


James Young is shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range in the postseason. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young is shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range in the postseason. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The more John Calipari called this group a great shooting team, the more it seemed to miss.

Clanks here. Bricks there. Some shots would just outright miss everything.

Coach Cal's words seemed hollow.

Then something happened right at the start of the postseason. Suddenly the Wildcats started making shots.

Since the postseason began at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, UK is shooting 41.2 percent from 3-point range, up from 31.6 percent in the regular season.

To give you some perspective, Creighton led the country this year in 3-point field-goal percent with a 41.4-percent mark. Undoubtedly, the ability to make shots has given UK a different dimension.

"Aaron (Harrison) and James (Young) are really knocking down their shots, making big shots for us," Andrew Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison and Young especially have been better since the postseason began. The former is shooting 50 percent in the postseason (22 of 44) from behind the arc and the latter is making them at a 41.4-percent clip (12 of 29). Both are noticeable increases from their regular-season numbers.

"We're shooting with a lot more confidence than we have been," Young said. "We're getting a lot of extra shots up, coming in each day shooting at least 30 minutes worth, and really just staying confident with all our shots."

Young said they've been having really good pregame shoot-arounds, which he says have spilled over to the games. But perhaps there's more to it than that.

In the loss at South Carolina, Kentucky's shooting woes got to the point where the Cats almost seemed to ditch the perimeter shot altogether and just drive to the hoop in hopes of getting fouled. The strategy turned into habit and habit turned into bad shot selection.

Since the well-known "tweak" Calipari made before the SEC Tournament, the offense appears to have opened up. It isn't just that shots are going it; it's that shot selection is better.

"I think Andrew's really starting to create shots for us," Aaron Harrison said. "We're just trying to knock them down."

And as they've gotten better shots, their confidence has gone up, allowing them to brush off the misses. They've learned to put the previous play behind them and not worry about misses, a revelation for a team that struggled so mightily with it earlier in the year.

"If you miss a shot, you just have to go on to the next one in your head," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just a mental thing."

That probably explains why Aaron Harrison was able to shine so late in the Michigan game after struggling so much early.

After missing all four of his shots in the first 32 minutes of Sunday's game, Aaron Harrison shook the adversity off and made the final four, all from 3-point range and all in the biggest moments of the game. In the previous game, against Louisville, Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead 3 with 39 seconds left after making just two of his previous 12 shots.

The most important one of the weekend, of course, was the game-winning 3-pointer vs. the Wolverines from the top of the key with 2.6 seconds left.

"I think we all just learned that it's all about winning," Aaron Harrison said. "It doesn't matter individually what you're doing. You just have to do whatever you can for the team to win."

Since that big shot, Aaron Harrison has been nicknamed a number of things by the fans, including "Mr. Big Shot" and "Big Shot Aaron." Calipari, on his weekly radio show Monday night, called him "an assassin."

"A couple of kids have said stuff about it," Aaron Harrison said. "I feel like the big man on campus, really."

His teammate Dakari Johnson had a much more colorful description of his fortitude, but unfortunately it's PG-13 material on a PG site.

"Yeah, I (heard) it," Aaron Harrison said. "It's pretty funny. It's not surprising from Dakari. Pretty funny."

All jokes aside, if the Cats need another big shot at the Final Four and it comes down to a last shot again, don't be surprised if Coach Cal goes with the hot hand again.

Asked on Tuesday if he would lobby for the last-second shot should the situation come down to it against Wisconsin, Aaron Harrison tried to play off the big-game heroics.

"I don't know," he said, smiling. "It depends on what Coach calls."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Willie Cauley-Stein sat out UK's win over Michigan on Sunday with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein sat out UK's win over Michigan on Sunday with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. In the latest entry, Willie Cauley-Stein takes us through his injury from last weekend, how he's dealt with it and what the experience of the late-season turnaround has been like for him.

By Willie Cauley-Stein (follow him on Twitter @TrillGeta15)

What's going on, BBN? It's Willie here.

Let's just get this out of the way. Don't have much of an update on my ankle at this point. I'm kind of just playing it by ear right now. I'm going to do a bunch of treatment on it in to see if I can start to jog on it or run on it, but we'll have to see what happens. It is doing a lot better and I can put pressure on it now. Before I couldn't.

How it happened is kind of crazy. I remember we turned the ball over and I tried to steal it. Wayne Blackshear was throwing it down the court and when I turned around, I just felt pain. I tried to walk over to the huddle, but I kind of knew right away something was wrong the second I tried to put more weight on it. I knew I probably wasn't going to be able to come back. It hurt to take off my shoe and I didn't really want to take it off. All I could think about was I wasn't going to be able to play.

When we went back to get it looked at, I really didn't know what was going on. It was just a lot of pain. I was trying to get back on the court just to sit on the bench in street clothes, but they wouldn't let me so I had to watch with Will Barton and Mike Malone on the TV. At halftime, everybody just came in and gave me daps and was like, "We're going to win this for you." All the coaches came in and said the same thing.

If I'm being honest, I felt kind of hopeless at first. I felt super sad because I couldn't be out there to help, but then I got really hyped when we started making our comeback and snapped out of it once I started cheering. When we first got back there, I had our student athletic trainer, Blake Copass, tell me the score. When we got it to 10, I told him we got this. I thought if we could get to 10 by halftime we had it because we always do that for some reason, fall behind and then come back. So I wasn't really worried about it. I knew we could keep chipping away in the second half and get some stops, and that's exactly what we did. It never went through my head that we were going to lose. I thought if we could get the lead, there's no way they can beat us. Once we got the lead, I said it was a wrap.

But yeah, we were going nuts in the back. Mike actually stayed in the bathroom for the last nine minutes of the game because when he went in there we started making a comeback. When he came out it sort of stopped, so we told him to go back in there and he stayed in there for the rest of the game. He didn't even watch it. He sat in the stall the whole time.

The Michigan game was hard at first for me. There would be times where I'd watch a play I would normally make and I started thinking to myself, "That changes if I'm playing," or "I would have had a field day if I was in that game." It would have been fun to play in that game because I felt like it was a game I would do really with. I feel the same about Saturday's, if I can play. So that kind of entered my head that it couldn't be set up more perfect for me, but then I lost myself in my teammates again. I realized I couldn't do anything about it so I might as well remember what's good about it, and that's when I got hyped again.

I'm sure you all saw my video on the sidelines by now.  I was honestly just fooling around with the camera. I was in the locker room and saw it and I was like, "Let me take this on the bench." Tim Asher, our video coordinator, he's crazy and was like, "Yeah, sure, let me teach you how to use it." And then he didn't get a chance to teach me how to do it so I didn't think would be able to get it.

I honestly didn't know to use it and was just playing around with it on the bench and figured out how to use it. I didn't know how much life it had so I got the starting lineups and then I just quit using it until the end. I made sure I got the last five minutes of the game. Looking back, it's really cool I got to do that. Like, I don't think anybody has ever done that before. It kind of gave people a chance to see what it's like to win and go to the Final Four - to feel what guys feel like. People watch it on TV and wonder what they feel like and it kind of gave you that first-person experience.

After we won, I did like a vertical leap on one foot from the bench to get on the stage and then I just started hopping. Jon Hood was going to come chest bump me but then he remembered and was like, "Oh, no, no, no, no." You see that on the video and I was like, "Screw it, it doesn't even matter." I was just so hyped and then everybody dog piled. I was kind of in the back and I was like, uhhhh, there's no way I'm not getting into this and just jumped on everybody and then rolled off. You see that picture with me and Marcus, that's right when I rolled off the pile.

We were all just so happy for each other. I know my teammates are all saying they are trying to win it for me, which is cool, but it just shows how much we've grown, how much everybody's really invested in each other. I've repeatedly told them coming in I've never won a championship before and that was kind of what I was playing for. I wasn't playing for anything else but to win a championship, so I think that kind of carried over to everybody else. Obviously people think that, but I think there a lot of guys that don't play for just that. I think that's why we'll be down 15 and come back and win every game. That's just that will to win. That's that fight in us now.

It's just surreal how everything changed. I feel like we were so close last year but at the same time so far from it. I feel like going into the SEC Tournament, I felt the same way as I did last year because we came off those two losses and I was like, 'We just gotta win the first game. If we win the first game, I think we'll be alright.' So I had that same feeling and then from that moment that's when everything changed. I feel like last year would have been the same way if we would have gotten over the hump. We just didn't get over it at the right time.

To be where we are now, I'm just trying to soak it in. Like, it doesn't seem real. From being as far as we were from it last year, from the farthest from being in the Final Four, to the whole year Coach saying, 'You're going to be in the Final Four,' or guys saying, 'Wait 'til we get to Dallas,' it's just crazy. You're kind of like, 'Oh yeah, wait 'til we get to Dallas,' but it's happened. It's real. It's just crazy how everything came together exactly like Coach Cal said it would.

It makes all the struggles we've been through worth it. It almost seems like it goes by too fast. From the start of it, from playing K-State to Wichita to Louisville to Michigan, it doesn't seem like all those games. That's a lot of games. It's weird because the Wichita State game feels like forever ago. It was, what, last week, two weeks ago? That's nuts to me. And then to beat three teams that were in the Final Four last year, that's just crazy. You don't think about that when that's going on. That thought process wasn't even in our heads when we were playing those games. We were just playing, having fun and enjoying the tournament. And so after you look back it, it just shows how underrated we were.

I think it's going to be an interesting weekend. It's going to be fun going back to Dallas. Hopefully it's better weather this time. I'm just excited. I remember a year ago saying that I wasn't satisfied and wanted to come back and win a championship. It's just surreal that we have a chance because you don't really think it's going to happen until it actually does. The fact that we're here after all the stuff that we went through and everything we overcame to get to this point, that's amazing to me.

Notes: Cal, Cats 'ecstatic' for Antigua

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Orlando Antigua was named head coach at South Florida earlier this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Orlando Antigua was named head coach at South Florida earlier this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

As the University of South Florida gained a new head coach in Orlando Antigua this week, Kentucky lost a lovable assistant and one of the game's best recruiters.

Antigua, who has been with the Wildcats since the start of the Calipari era, has built an impressive résumé during his coaching career - 10 NCAA tournament appearances, seven trips to the Sweet 16, four Final Fours, one national championship -- and was hired as head coach of the Bulls on Monday.

Even though Antigua is moving forward in his career and UK is losing a valued assistant in the process, John Calipari and the players are happy for Antigua and his long overdue opportunity.

"The guys were ecstatic for him," Calipari said. "They were happy. Willie (Cauley-Stein) got on the phone with him and said 'You know you owe me now. I helped you get that job.' It's just funny. This is a little different deal here. The guys aren't separated from the players, they create relationships with them and these guys are happy for them. ... It is the right job for him."

Calipari believes the University of South Florida is the perfect match for Antigua because of his heritage and position as the head coach of the Dominican Republic National Team.

"Being South Florida, one of his home bases is going to be the Dominican Republic, which he will be able to recruit," Calipari said. "So now you're talking South Florida, a little Latin flavor. They also need someone to excite their fans, their campus. Well, that's him. That's who he is. That's why I say it's a perfect fit, in my opinion."

But Cal isn't the only one cheering about Antigua's new coaching job; the Kentucky players are happy for him as well.

"We're extremely proud of him," Marcus Lee said. "He's a really great guy. If I can think of someone who has more energy than I do going through practice, it's him. He's the most energetic person I've ever met, and that's saying something. So I'm real proud of him. He's done a lot for me and the team, so I'm loving what he's doing."

Antigua will stay with Kentucky to finish out the Wildcats' tournament run.

"I'm excited for him," Andrew Harrison said. "We're going to miss him around here, but he was a great coach and they're lucky to have him."

Cal's friendship with Bo Ryan

Saturday's Final Four showdown with Kentucky and Wisconsin is more than just a game for Coach Cal and Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan.

The two head coaches have a close friendship and connected over the relationship Coach Ryan had with his father. Calipari and Ryan spoke Monday, and according to Cal, he was the only person Ryan answered the phone for.

"Well, let me tell you, he and I talked yesterday for about 15 minutes and what I told him was I watched the end of your game and I watched the interview and I got emotional because he talked about his father," Calipari said. "The reason we got to know each other was because I got to see how he was with his father. His father would go everywhere with him. Every year. And I'd see his dad, and we'd talk. It's like Billy (Donovan). I like Billy, but what I respect the most is what he is with his dad. His dad sits on the bench. So are you coaching tonight? I grab him - 'What are you coaching tonight? Rebounding? Defense?' But, the same with Bo and his father. Coaching and all that - I don't care. Wins, national championships, that doesn't matter."

Calipari plans to honor Ryan's father, who died in August, at the Final Four banquet before the games.

"To see him and how he was and then know that and watch that postgame, he and I have planned a toast to his father at the function that they do for all of the teams," Calipari said. "So, we're both going to have a beer and toast to his dad. I said we're going to toast him yesterday and he said great. I told him I wish we weren't playing each other because one of us has to lose. I'm happy for him. He's a good man. He's a good guy."

AT&T Stadium take two

Playing in AT&T Stadium on Saturday for the Final Four isn't the Wildcats' first rodeo with the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Back in December, Kentucky dropped a 67-62 decision to the Baylor Bears in Arlington, Texas. Heading into Final Four action, the Wildcats are hoping to block that loss out of their mind and this time around, produce a different outcome.

"It's a huge place, very nice place," Andrew Harrison said. "We did play there earlier this year, but we want to forget that game and just go in there with a new life, a new team, a different team."

Aaron Harrison said they had no idea if they would make a return trip after that Baylor game. Their thoughts were focused simply on the heartbreak of the loss.

"After a loss you always have to have some negative thoughts," he said. "But it was just another game really, so it wasn't that big of a deal."

Capacity for the Final Four will be 77,122. Having played there once already, the Cats aren't worried about shooting sight lines or playing on a stage, especially after their experience there the first time and this past week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"It's huge and it's just going to be fun," said Julius Randle, who is returning to his hometown for the Final Four. "The atmosphere, the environment, so many people there. The last time it was an ice storm, so it was a big arena but it wasn't too many people. I'm just looking forward to this time playing in front of a big crowd and competing again."

UK broadcast

Viewers of the Final Four will have two options for watching the game on TV.

They can stick with the usual national broadcast on TBS, which will feature Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr, or they can watch an alternate, UK-specific version on TNT that will be called by local broadcasters Rob Bromley (play-by-play), Rex Chapman (analyst) and Dave Baker (sideline reporter).

Turner Sports and CBS are experimenting with team-specific broadcast during the Final Four to give fans the option of watching the game through the view of one team. Each team in the Final Four will have a team-specific broadcast.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Healthy Bernal propels UK past U of L

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Thomas Bernal didn't have much fun during the second half of the 2013 season.

Relegated to the bench with an injured arm, Bernal watched helplessly as UK sputtered down the stretch and fell just shy of an NCAA Tournament berth.

"It was tough," Bernal said. "You can't really help the team out and you've just gotta learn from it."

The Wildcats, without Bernal's right-handed bat available, simply couldn't score regularly enough in the rigorous Southeastern Conference. Head coach Gary Henderson never made any excuses, but the numbers don't lie.

UK (20-9, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) batted just .223 as a team and finished the season 10-19 after starting 21-6.

"We were kind of rudely awakened to what his presence meant last year, there's no doubt about that," Henderson said.

Bernal now healthy and filling his regular role as a first baseman, designated hitter and pinch hitter, there's no arguing his importance. That's especially true after what he did in UK's 8-3 win over No. 8 Louisville on Tuesday night.

A designated hitter on this day with A.J. Reed at first, Bernal had three hits in four at-bats out of the No. 7 spot in the UK lineup as the Cardinals started freshman lefthander Josh Rogers. All told, he had four RBI, scored two runs and hit the first home run of his college career.

"Good to get that off my back," Bernal said with a laugh. "It feels great. Any home run feels great but to hit it against Louisville feels really good."

His first homer nearly came in the second inning.

After U of L struck first for two runs in the second inning, Micheal Thomas and Kyle Barrett reached base to set up a sacrifice opportunity for Storm Wilson. He got the bunt down, moving two runners into scoring position.

Free to swing away, Bernal pulled a changeup just foul over the fence down the left-field line. Later in the at-bat, he settled for a single to score Barrett and halve Louisville's lead.

Two innings later, he finally got the monkey off his back, knocking in the go-ahead runs in the process. Thomas and Barrett reached to lead off the fourth and Wilson laid down another successful sacrifice. On the first pitch of his at-bat, Bernal hit a three-run homer that looked like it would leave the park off the bat.

Bernal, unconvinced, busted it out of the batter's box.

"I've never hit a home run before, so I don't know how to trot," Bernal said.

Though the home run was his first, Bernal has been a steady presence for UK all season. He's batting .288, but is just as important for the leadership he developed in part during his half-season out with injury.

"He's just an older kid that's really mature that people respect," Henderson said. "He's a good player, gives us some flexibility when A.J.'s pitching. He's kind of a team favorite. He's a kid that everybody respects and admires."

A lot of that respect and admiration comes from the way Bernal handles his split role. Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, he's the same person and player.

"It takes a good attitude," Henderson said. "It takes all the things that your mom and dad try to teach you as a kid: have a good attitude, try really hard, and be nice to other people. They are basics and he does them well. He is a kid that appreciates what he is a part of and the kids respect him. He is a hard worker and a good player, which is a pretty good combination for us."

Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the last few months, Marcus Lee toiled in anonymity. Well, as much anonymity as is possible for a 6-foot-9 former McDonald's All-American on the UK campus.

That came to an end in a big way after he exploded to help lead Kentucky to the Final Four, and at no point was that clearer than on Tuesday morning.

Walking into a marketing class of about 200, Lee was welcomed by a standing ovation.

"It was just awesome," Lee said. "If you could see me blush, I was probably blushing."

Lee, after a 17-point collegiate debut, found himself buried on the bench due to an illness that caused him to drop 15 pounds and the play of Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. But an injury to Cauley-Stein in the Sweet 16 created an opportunity and Lee -- delivering on a prediction of a big game by John Calipari -- capitalized.

An afterthought on Michigan's scouting report, Lee had four put-back dunks in the first half alone en route to 10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team. Since then, on top of his lecture-hall greeting, Lee has been treated to a barrage of text messages and calls from friends from his home of Antioch, Calif.

"They were just so proud of me, so I'm just glad that they have my back," Lee said.

But if you're concerned about Lee letting a little success go to his head, you can rest easy. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Lee could hardly make it through two questions without having to dab sweat from his brow after what was clearly an intense pre-practice workout.

"That's what right now is for, is just to get in the gym and keep up what I started to make sure I'm always working to better so they're not just looking at one thing I can do," Lee said. "I'm just broadening my horizons as we go."

Lee surely won't be sneaking up on Wisconsin when UK plays for a spot in the national championship game at 8:49 p.m. ET, so the broader his horizons the better.

Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for the matchup, leaving the Wildcats to deal with talented 7-footer Frank Kaminsky without their most versatile post defender. Kaminsky leads the Badgers in scoring and rebounding and has 3-point range, hitting 37 of 98 (37.8 percent) of his attempts on the season.

"He's going to be a handful," Calipari said.

It's a handful the Cats are thankful to have to deal with.

UK is one of just four teams still dancing, a fact the players celebrated wildly on Sunday. Back home in Lexington, fellow students took to the streets, which wasn't lost on the Cats.

"I've seen pictures on Instagram and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "That's pretty crazy. That just shows how much school spirit we have."

That display of school spirit in the rearview mirror, the Cats go back to work. As plain as the joy on players' faces was to see in a postgame dog pile and receiving the Midwest Regional trophy, UK is having no problem with that.

"When you realize you're going to the Final Four of course you're going to celebrate, but, look," Julius Randle said, nodding his head toward Aaron Harrison and James Young firing jumpers on the Joe Craft Center practice floor, "guys are in the gym working right now. So we're not done yet."

If that's true, it could be more than Lee getting in-class standing ovations a week from now.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

The Wildcats celebrate their third Final Four berth in fourth seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The Wildcats celebrate their third Final Four berth in fourth seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The words out of Andrew Harrison's mouth told one story.

Asked if he believed they would be in this position, just a day away from traveling to Dallas for the Final Four, Andrew Harrison said, "Yeah, of course. Never a doubt."

The smile told a different one.

To believe Kentucky would be in this spot even three weeks ago when UK was treading water and reeling from three losses in four games, one would have to either be a crazy person or John Calipari.

The latter, of course, said he never gave up, never stopped believing. He warned a while back that his team may not "click" this year, but that didn't stop him from hoping and trusting it would.

He said Tuesday, two days since the latest example that no one is truly dead until there are no games left on the schedule, that he never wondered if his team would ever "get it," so to speak.

"I don't think that way," Calipari said. "It's just like when I'm coaching a basketball game. I never think we're going to lose until the horn goes off and say, 'Man, we needed more time. We lost that one.' The losing never comes in my mind.

"I never give up on a player.  I never give up on a team. I just think it's going to take longer. There are times that I get more aggressive. There are times I get more impatient, but I never stop believing."

Coach Cal said he'll do whatever he has to do try to make this thing work.

This season it took the well-known "tweaks," which Calipari said on his radio show Monday night included one more for this weekend. Last season he went as far as to play dodge ball to change the mentality of the team after the injury to Nerlens Noel.

But to get this year's players to believe they were going to get better, Calipari joked on Tuesday that he had to go to drastic lengths get them to buy in.

"You all counted us off," he said. "I had to be wheeled in, in there (practice gym) in a casket, and I opened it and said, 'We ain't dead yet, boys!' for my guys to believe."

A casket? Really?

"Absolutely," said the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, who was hobbling by on crutches and a boot on his way to the locker room.

OK, so the casket thing really didn't happen, but the players confirmed that Coach Cal did entertain the idea.

"He said he was going to," Aaron Harrison said. "He said he couldn't get a casket, but I think that was fun."

Said Marcus Lee: "When he told us that, we all started dying laughing. It was probably the funniest thing that's happened this year."

Between that and the DVDs of old game tape Calipari shredded in front of the players, Calipari stopped at nothing to get the Cats to understand that the past was the past and their goals were still in front of them.

That notion seemed hard to believe after the loss at home to Arkansas, in the aftermath of the embarrassing loss at South Carolina or on the plane ride home from the beating at Florida, but Calipari has always said that one of his main goals throughout the regular season is to put his team in a position to be in the hunt at the end of the year when it matters most.

Here they are, two wins away from a national championship, as implausible as that once seemed.

"We were never dead, honestly," Lee said. "To everybody else we were dead, and now it's just in their brains. So I guess that's what he was trying to come out and say (with the casket thing)."

Obviously it worked.

"We definitely got it," Andrew Harrison said. "A lot of people didn't think we would be here, let alone Sweet 16 or anything like that. It's fun proving people wrong."

Even themselves.

"We just had to figure things out," Aaron Harrison said. "I don't think it's about destiny. Yeah, we're definitely a blessed team, but I think we worked hard to do what we've done."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: All-Access, Michigan Edition

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