Cat Scratches

Recently in Features Category

Abby Myers making an impact in and out of the pool

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Myers_Abby_Posed_2014_08 Edit.jpg
From her success in the pool to the classroom and her commitment to the community, senior swimmer Abby Myers' impact on the Kentucky swimming and diving team and the University of Kentucky is hard not to notice.

A team captain who has excelled both in the pool and in the classroom, Myers' leadership is a key reason for the Wildcats' success in 2014. Combined with her commitment to community service, and she is the perfect representation of what it means to be a student-athlete at Kentucky.

Myers, along with softball player Griffin Joiner, has been named one of UK's two nominees for the NCAA's Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship. 

Established by the NCAA in 1988, the program honors one male and one female student-athlete annually by awarding a postgraduate scholarship in recognition of outstanding academic achievement and potential for success in postgraduate study.

"It means a lot to me. It is an honor to be chosen by the coaching staff and athletic department," Myers said of her nomination. "It means a lot that they would think so highly of me and choose me to be a candidate for this award."

The recipient of the Walter Byers Scholarship, announced in the spring, will be recognized as one who has combined the best elements of mind and body to achieve national distinction for his or her achievements, and promises to be a future leader in his or her chosen field of career service.

For UK head coach Lars Jorgensen, Myers fits the bill perfectly.

"Abby represents everything that's great about UK and our team," Jorgensen said. "There couldn't be a more deserving person, who's a great student, a great athlete and a great leader. She does wonderful things in the community and we're proud that she is nominated for this honor.

"Our women's team has made great strides the last two years, and much of that is because of Abby. Her work ethic in the pool, she holds her teammates accountable, she's tough as nails and she is well respected by her peers. She is a great person too. There's no shortage of good things to say about her. As far as her leadership, she is an outstanding leader and Abby has been huge in terms of our overall progress as a team."

As one of UK's captains this season, Myers has taken on an expanded role as a leader. With a large core of freshman and sophomores, those leadership responsibilities increase.

From workouts and competition to life outside the pool, Myers does not take the role lightly.

"I'm just trying to set the team into the right direction and set a good example," Myers said. "I want to give everyone an opportunity to be the best that they can be. I think the team has really taken that and run with it this year. I have seen the team grow a lot over the past two years and this is the best team I have been a part of."

In the classroom, Myers has been recognized several times for her academic success. Last spring, she was named to the Academic All-District Team, and helped the women's team earn the nation's best grade-point-average among all Division I men's and women's swimming and diving teams.

With a 3.94 GPA last year and majoring in Exercise Science, Myers has been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll on three occasions.

Outside of team activities, Myers still can't get far away from the pool. Twice a week, she volunteers with a Special Olympics swim team in Lexington.

Myers was UK's representative on the 2014 SEC Community Service Team.

"My favorite part about community service is that I am part of a Special Olympics swim team downtown called the Fintastics," Myers said. "I have been doing that since my freshman year and they are kind of like my Lexington family. I see them twice a week, coach them and even swim with the kids a little bit. They are so much fun to be with. It's a nice thing to do to get off of campus to see some of the local Lexington people and get to know some people outside of UK."

From Cranberry Township, Pa., Myers is far from home, but her team -- both at UK and with the Fintastics -- have become part of a second family.

As Myers competes in her final season with the Wildcats, the All-American will continue to take UK to new heights. For Myers, this is just the beginning.

Towns not afraid to try different, be different

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and nine rebounds in UK's win over EKU on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and nine rebounds in UK's win over EKU on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By any reasonable measure, Karl-Anthony Towns' college career started well.

Starting on the No. 1 team in the land, Towns was among the nation's top shot-blockers and even won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors after big games against UT Arlington and Providence. He followed that up with 10 more points in Kentucky's second top-10 win of the season against Texas.

But the Saturday after the victory, Towns had a reaction you might not expect.

"I woke up in the morning, brushed my teeth - good hygiene, that's the biggest thing - and I looked in the mirror and I wanted to be better," Towns said. "I wanted to do something a little different than what I'm used to."

For Towns, there's no bigger departure from the norm than abandoning the toothy grin that he's come to be known for around the Joe Craft Center.

"He's got a very nice smile," assistant coach Barry Rohrssen said. "He really does."

Fear not, Coach Rohrssen, the smile isn't going away all the time.

Towns, seeking to find an edge to take his game to the next level, decided stash his smile in favor of a scowl during UK's matchup with Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. Towns' theory is that he plays his best when he's mad, so why not take that mentality to tipoff?

His logic, it seems, was sound.

The freshman was dominant against the Colonels, posting 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, nine rebounds and four blocks. Just as importantly, the performance drew rave reviews from his toughest critic, Karl Sr., which means Junior plans to try the same approach for UK's next game, a matchup with Columbia (5-2) at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday.

"My father liked it," Towns said. "He said it's a different person (than) he's ever seen, so I like it too. I looked at a little bit of tape and I thought it kept me a little bit more focused on the game. I like it. I'm going to keep experimenting with it."

Considering Towns had already established himself among the top NBA Draft prospects in the nation, it's somewhat of a scary thought if the experiment works. Towns, after that EKU performance that again won him SEC Freshman of the Week honors, is averaging 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 18.8 minutes.

"You're always looking for that next step to give your team another help," Towns said. "I'm just trying to help my team at all causes, at all times."

What Towns has going for him, other than his talent and 6-foot-11 frame, is he's on a team deep and experienced enough that he can experiment with the best ways to do that without having to worry about carrying the load on his own.

"For me it's been great knowing that I have a security blanket, I guess," Towns said. "Not everything's always going to be on my shoulders like it was in high school. The best thing about it is that I put pressure on myself. I want to be the best player I can possibly be. I want to be the best I can be for this team, so I'm putting a lot of pressure just on myself."

Towns' ultimate goal is to forget the freshman label he's carrying and play like his veteran teammates, namely Willie Cauley-Stein, who dominated in the win over Texas that prompted his mini-reinvention.

"The biggest thing is just don't be timid," Towns said. "Go out there and have a ball playing, but also we're getting to that part of the season now. Games are going to be a lot harder. We gotta do what we gotta do to make sure that we're the best possible. If this mentality helps me and the team then so be it. I'll do it every game."

Rohrssen feels the same way, though he still wants Karl to remain Karl off the court.

"His priorities always seem in order," Rohrssen said. "Again, he isn't just a good player. He's a wonderful person. He's so well-liked in this building, among his teammates, on campus, in the community here. Throughout many of the events that we've done, Karl has always gone above and beyond even what you ask him to do."

Whether it's in basketball or in life, going above and beyond is what Towns does. It's just who he is.

"Karl is a bit different, in a good way," Rohrssen said. "In a very good way."

UK in the NFL: Warford makes his return

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Larry Warford returned to active duty for the Detroit Lions this weekend after an absence due to injury. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Larry Warford returned to active duty for the Detroit Lions this weekend after an absence due to injury. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics

This week in the NFL, Detroit Lions right guard Larry Warford returned to the playing field after spending the last three weeks on the sideline with a sprained left knee. In a rematch with First Team All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy--of whom Warford got the better in their one-on-one matchup as a rookie last season--the former Wildcat emerged victorious. The Lions defeated McCoy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 34-17.

In addition to Warford's successful return from the first injury of his entire football career, Week 14 marked former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews' first official game as an active NFL player. The 6-foot-5 Los Angeles native was promoted from the Seattle Seahawks' practice squad on Saturday after two seasons in the Canadian Football League (where he was named most outstanding rookie in 2012). The defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14.

Cats in the Spotlight

Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (10-3)
In a tight 43-37 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Cobb caught four passes for 58 yards. With Cobb held without a touchdown for the past four weeks, Kentucky's all-time total TD leader has seen his 2014 receiving touchdown total stagnate at 10 (tying him for fourth in the NFL).

Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (10-3)
Despite a rib injury that left Tamme questionable for Sunday's game with the Buffalo Bills, the Danville, Ky. native caught one pass for 10 yards. However, Tamme also lost a fumble in the Broncos' 24-17 win over Buffalo.

Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11)

In yet another loss by the Titans, Williamson totaled six total tackles (three solo, three assisted) against the New York Giants. Tennessee fell to New York, 36-7.

Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-11)
Kentucky's veteran half of its Titans linebacker duo outshone its rookie half by a two-tackle margin on Sunday. Woodyard combined for four solo tackles and four assists in Tennessee's blowout loss to the Giants.

UK in the NBA: Point guards star in week 7

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Former UK guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall posted big games in the NBA this week. (UK Athletics) Former UK guards Eric Bledsoe and John Wall posted big games in the NBA this week. (UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics

Through games on Sunday, Dec. 7

A trio of former Kentucky guards highlighted week six in the NBA. Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and Rajon Rondo have been on top of their games to this point in the season, but the three floor generals handed in consecutive spectacular performances this past week.

Bledsoe collected averages of 23 points, six assists and three rebounds while logging over 38 minutes per game as the Phoenix Suns posted a 2-1 record for the week. Even as the fourth year guard carried the scoring load for his team, Bledsoe still let his presence be known on the defensive end of the floor, including this spectacular chase-down block against the Rockets on Sunday.

UPDATE: Bledsoe had another huge game on Monday, posting 27 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in a 121-120 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Bledsoe's triple-double against his former team was the first of his career and the first for a Suns player since 2006.

Rajon Rondo was back to his stat-stuffing ways with several eye-popping box score performances. First, Rondo recorded a season-high 19 assists and 12 rebounds last Tuesday, marking his sixth career double-double with assists and rebounds. No other guard in the league currently has more than one.

Rondo continued his passing display on Friday when he out-assisted the entire Los Angeles Lakers team 16 to 14 in a convincing 113-96 win for the Celtics. He capped off the week by posting a triple-double against John Wall and the Washington Wizards. Rondo was good for 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in another Celtics victory, who have put together three straight wins for the first time this season.

Even with the greatness from Rondo, former Wildcat John Wall pieced together an impressive night himself. Wall finished the game with 17 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks in what was truly a heavyweight matchup between two of the league's best point guards.

76ers get first win

The Philadelphia 76ers opened the 2014-15 NBA season with a 17-game losing streak, just one game away from tying the NBA's worst start in league history. On Wednesday, though, Philly defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves as rookie Nerlens Noel chipped in eight points, three rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes of action.

Noel followed up the first encouraging night of basketball in his young career with an 11-point, 10-rebound performance, recording his third double-double of the season.

Week seven TV schedule

Tuesday: Dallas @ Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV
                Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) @ L.A. Lakers 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV
Wednesday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis) @ Dallas 8:00 p.m. on ESPN
Thursday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Sacramento (DeMarcus Cousins) 10:30 p.m. on TNT
Friday: Portland @ Chicago (Nazr Mohammed) 7:00 p.m. on ESPN

Statistics (through games on Dec. 7)

Player (Team)

Games   Played

Games Started

MPG

PPG

RPG

APG

BPG

SPG

Eric Bledsoe (Suns)

21

21

32.2

15.8

4.7

5.7

0.7

1.4

DeMarcus Cousins (Kings)

15

15

32.0

23.5

12.6

2.4

1.5

1.1

Anthony Davis (Pelicans)

19

19

36.3

25.2

10.7

1.7

2.9

2.1

Archie Goodwin (Suns)

9

0

7.0

3.3

1.3

0.3

0.0

0.1

Chuck Hayes (Raptors)

12

0

10.2

1.5

2.2

1.0

0.1

0.5

Terrence Jones (Rockets)

4

4

29.3

14.0

7.5

1.5

1.8

1.0

Enes Kanter (Jazz)

20

20

25.3

13.7

6.7

0.7

0.4

0.4

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Hornets)

6

6

23.3

9.8

5.5

1.3

0.8

0.2

Brandon Knight (Bucks)

22

22

32.1

17.6

4.7

5.8

0.1

1.5

Nerlens Noel (76ers)

17

13

30.8

8.2

6.6

1.6

1.2

1.6

Patrick Patterson (Raptors)

20

3

25.5

7.5

5.7

1.6

0.4

0.6

Tayshaun Prince (Grizzlies)

 

11

6

23.1

8.0

2.8

0.8

0.1

0.3

Rajon Rondo (Celtics)

17

17

32.8

8.8

7.8

11.2

0.2

1.6

John Wall (Wizards)

19

19

35.3

17.6

4.7

10.0

0.7

2.2

James Young (Celtics)

5

0

3.6

2.2

0.4

0.2

0.2

0.0


Marcus Lee had 10 points, all on dunks in UK's 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, all on dunks, in UK's 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Marcus Lee was the first UK player to find out firsthand what John Calipari meant when he said the platoon system is "not communism."

With Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee's first-platoon counterpart, dominating in a top-10 matchup with Texas, Lee was informed in the locker room he would move into a backup role in the second half.

It would have been understandable had Lee been a little down playing just one minute after halftime. Instead, he sat back and enjoyed the show.

"It was great the other game just watching him go off," Lee said. "That's the greatest I've seen Willie and that's just the kind of team we are."

Lee, in spite of having to take a step back, didn't disengage. Knowing how the platoons work and that his time would come, the sophomore was secure enough being the biggest cheerleader for the player who was getting his minutes as he posted 21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks.

"When someone ahead of you is doing really well, you're just like, 'Hey Coach, keep him in,' and you're totally fine with it and you know you have the next game," Lee said. "So I wasn't worried about it at all. I knew today would just be a new game and everything would be different."

He was right.

Lee, jumping right back into the rotation, had his best game of the season in No. 1 UK's latest dominant performance, an 82-49 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday at Rupp Arena. Lee had 10 points in the victory on five second-half dunks, his offensive specialty.

"It makes the game fun," Lee said. "Any kind of lob is fun. But playing this fast tempo is just something that I've always loved to do. It's just my kind of game and the lobs just kind of came naturally in this game."

Considering Lee had been quiet through much of UK's undefeated start, scoring no more than four points in any game before EKU, his emergence was encouraging. Much more encouraging is the fact that the Cats are responding to the way playing time is being divvied up just as the coaching staff hoped they would.

"These guys genuinely really like each other," assistant coach John Robic said.

Those feelings were proven by the way Lee handled Cauley-Stein's career night on Friday and again Sunday by Cauley-Stein. Forty-eight hours removed from a performance that had NBA scouts and analysts buzzing, Cauley-Stein was eager to see Lee succeed just as Lee had been for him.

So eager, in fact, that Cauley-Stein told John Calipari to leave Lee in at one point rather than check back in himself.

"It was Willie's turn to go in, and Willie told Coach, 'Keep Marcus in,' " Robic said.

Watching the moment live, Robic was reminded of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament title game when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gave up his starting spot for a struggling Darius Miller. UK would lose the game to Vanderbilt, but Miller regained his form and the Cats would of course go on to win their eighth national championship.
 
"It was one of those things that if you think back what Gilchrist did for Darius Miller, that's a sign of maturity, that's a sign of a leader, that's a sign of being a good teammate," Robic said. "They appreciate that."

It remains to be seen whether similarly selfless acts by this year's team will lead to No. 9, but it's certainly not a bad sign.

"That totally puts trust and comfort in your other players knowing that I'd be able to do it for him and he's also capable of doing the same for me," Lee said. "It kind of just shows how much we care for each other and we're not just there for ourselves."
 

Janee Thompson might want to consider campaigning for UK to play more games in the KFC Yum! Center.

She seems to do pretty well there.

After leading a comeback from 14 points down and hitting the game-winning two years ago at Louisville, Thompson put on another second-half show against UK's archival on Saturday. The junior point guard poured in 16 of her 19 points after halftime, headlining a rally from 15 points down with just 18:01 left as No. 7 UK (8-1) topped the Cardinals (8-1), 77-68.

Thompson was clutch throughout, hitting the free throw that gave UK its first lead at 59-58 and the game-tying 3 with 3:03 left after the Cardinals had reclaimed a three-point lead to start a decisive 14-2 run to close the game.

She didn't miss a shot in the second half, deftly (and speedily) running UK's offense in the second half. The Cats shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the first half as a team, but 55.6 percent in the second to race past the previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cardinals.

Thompson was also at the top of UK's swarming pressure defense and snagged four steals. UK forced Louisville into 15 second-half turnovers and 28 for the game. Even when the Cardinals did manage to initiate their half-court offense, they found little room to operate, shooting 24.1 percent from the field after halftime.

The victory was UK's fourth in a row over Louisville, meaning fourth-year seniors Azia Bishop and Bria Goss, who scored 11 points in a team-high 35 minutes, have never lost to the Cardinals.

Mitchell letting UK-U of L speak for itself

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment

Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.

He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.

"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."

You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.

"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."

There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.

"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."

Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.

"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."

Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.

"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."

Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."

"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."

The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.

UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.

"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."


By Connor Link, UK Athletics


In Kentucky's 10th consecutive postseason appearance (and third hosting the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend), a pair of familiar faces forged the Wildcats' way to a win.

"As seniors, Lauren O'Conner and Jackie Napper really led us tonight in their respective responsibilities," said head coach Craig Skinner. "(That) is what you want and need out of your senior group."

In her typical dominating fashion, O'Conner recorded a game-high 14 kills, with a .452 hitting percentage. Along with teammate Kaz Brown, O'Conner also anchored a two-player defensive wall at the net, blocking three balls on her own.

"I was pleased with our effort tonight," Skinner said. "Defensively, holding (Oakland) to .107 (hitting percentage) was a big key."

In the Kentucky backcourt, Napper was responsible for 22 digs--12 more than the Wildcats' next closest player. With 519 total digs on the season, Napper's relentless effort in part earned her SEC Libero of the Year accolades in 2014. However, with less than 24 hours to prepare for their next match, the Cats aren't basking in any of 2014's successes--including Friday's three-set sweep.

"We don't play back-to-back matches, but when we are on the road, we play Friday, practice Saturday, and play on Sunday," Skinner said. "When you get the adrenaline pumping, and you're playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, (fatigue) becomes less of a factor as execution and the desire to compete."

No. 14 Kentucky (27-5, 15-3 SEC) will face Ohio State (21-11, 12-8 Big Ten) Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET at Memorial Coliseum. Although UK has not faced a Big Ten opponent all season, the Cats are confident that game planning will not be an issue.

"I think we'll be prepared," Napper said. "Ohio State's a great team, and we've got to come out and play the best match of the season."

"Through the SEC, there are always different styles of games," said O'Conner. "I think we do a good job of adjusting throughout the games, and doing the things that we need to do, depending on that team."

With a group led by veterans, Skinner realizes the fine balance between ample preparation and over-analysis as his team heads into the tournament's second round.

"You want to be prepared, but you don't want to over-prepare, either," Skinner said. "We're going to give (the players) information that we've executed on certain teams in the past, and see where it falls."

"We just take it one match at a time," said O'Conner. "After (Friday's victory), we're going to go watch video on Ohio State. This match is past us, and it's all Ohio State now."

Willie Cauley-Stein had a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in UK's 63-51 win over Texas. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein had a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in UK's 63-51 win over Texas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In the midst of an offseason of unprecedented hype, there was one question John Calipari kept asking because he wasn't sure of the answer.

You see, he remembered the two national championship games he's coached in the last three seasons. He remembered how the outcome was decided.

"When we played Connecticut, who was the best player on the court? (Shabazz Napier) And that's why they won," Calipari said in a preseason interview. "When we played Kansas in that final game, who was the best player on the court? (Anthony Davis) My guy. And we won."

The question, then, as UK worked toward another trip to college basketball's biggest stage bearing a preseason No. 1 ranking, was whether the Wildcats would have such a player when the games got big. Immediately, a candidate, Willie Cauley-Stein, came to mind.

"So now, on this team, when we play in that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have?" Calipari said. "And so who would that be? Can it be Willie?"

It's still only December, but Cauley-Stein answered resoundingly yes in No. 1 Kentucky's first close game of the season, a 63-51 win over No. 6 Texas on Friday night in Rupp Arena.

"He was ridiculous today," Calipari said.

Ridiculous to the tune of a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks as UK (8-0) survived what Texas head coach Rick Barnes aptly termed a "big-boy game."

"It was crazy," said Alex Poythress, who had eight points of his own. "He was everywhere blocking shots, getting steals, offensively he was real good at getting rebounds. It was the best I've ever seen him out there."

"He affected the game in every way he could affect it," Barnes said.

The game was one in which Cauley-Stein would likely have struggled in his first two seasons. He would often dominate against smaller opponents, but not in more bruising contests. The messages Calipari delivered about staying low and negating physical play just weren't sinking in, at least not until recently.

"The biggest thing was before I wasn't seeing success at it. So I'm like, 'Why do I gotta play like this? I'm not even seeing success.' I started seeing success at it and I'm like, 'Well...' "

The Longhorns came close to matching UK's incredible size and strength inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, but the junior 7-footer didn't back away from the challenge. Cauley-Stein called the matchup one between two teams with the top bigs in the country, and he was the best of the bunch.

Not only did he sky for rebounds, swoop in for blocks and streak into passing lanes for steals as he's become known for, he was also UK's primary offensive option, even in the clutch.

After battling to a 26-26 halftime draw, the Cats came out of the locker room fired up and used an 18-2 run to build what appeared to be a safe lead considering the suffocating defense they were playing and had played all season. Instead, the Longhorns charged back, twice cutting UK's lead to five points in the final five minutes.

Both times, it wasn't Aaron Harrison, he of the game-winning 3-pointers, who stepped up. It was Cauley-Stein.

The first, with 4:19 left, came when Cauley-Stein grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Tyler Ulis. In one motion, he gathered himself and rose again for a basket.

"I've just been working on that shot and working on those shots in the paint," Cauley-Stain said. "They just played off me the whole time so I just shot it."

Minutes later, Cauley-Stein scored five points in a row with three made free throws in four tries and an alley-oop from Andrew Harrison on which he jumped and seemed to keep rising to bump UK's lead back to double digits.

"I've just been working on my game so the confidence is going to continue to come the more and more I work on it," said Cauley-Stein, who played 33 minutes, the most for any UK player this season. "That's just the biggest thing, is doing it. Tonight I just did it."

Unsurprisingly, his performance drew rave reviews from all around, including ESPN NBA Draft guru Chad Ford. Cauley-Stein would have been a lottery contender had he not defied expectations and left UK last spring, but he opted to return. He's looking like a smart man after being the best player on the floor in a game that featured more than a few future pros.

"That's one of the biggest reasons why I came back is just to develop myself more as a basketball player," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like I'm starting to do that. And the good thing is I've got so much more time. It's only December. I've still got like three months of that."


Not all teams enter the NCAA Tournament carrying confidence and momentum.

That won't be an issue for the Kentucky Wildcats.

"I think they'll feel pretty good," UK head coach Craig Skinner said.

The Cats (26-5, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) enter the postseason with a No. 13 seed and the right to host yet again. They've won eight times in nine matches ahead of a first-round matchup with Oakland (22-9, 12-2 Horizon League) at 7:30 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The victor will advance to face either Ohio State or Lipscomb at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

"With 26 wins and beating a lot of good teams this year, playing 10 matches that are already in this tournament I think gives us an understand and appreciation of the level we need to play at to advance," Skinner said, "We've been practicing really well and I think the energy and the confidence is in a good place."

The confidence is no accident, as UK has rebounded successfully after two losses in three matches against LSU and Texas A&M. Since then, the Cats have lost just five sets in their last 30 tries to claim the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history behind SEC Libero of the Year Jackie Napper and four more all-league performers.

"It's a tribute to our players, who had a great regular season and several all-conference award winners and just to me and especially our young players the most exciting time to be participating in this sport," Skinner said. "So we're excited to have Oakland here and especially Lipscomb and Ohio State competing in the first match and with the winners competing Saturday. I just can't wait to get on the floor and get after it."

Skinner and the Cats are excited, but that doesn't mean they don't fully grasp the challenge ahead of then. Oakland has four players averaging better than 2.3 digs per set, representing a departure from the typical first-round opponent for a nationally seeded team.

"Typically a team like Oakland has a couple players that dominate," Skinner said. "Oakland's a team that has four or five players that really make an impact in the match and so we have to have a great game plan to know what they're going to do against us and how to defend their players because they are uniquely balanced I think in that regard."

Fortunately for the Cats, they'll be performing in front of their home crowd. Other coaches might prefer to hit the road and play free of the added pressure that comes from playing in front of their home fans, but Skinner is eager for the chance to host another big crowd in Memorial.

"Some people might say it's a disadvantage because you've got a lot of distractions at home," Skinner said. "I think it's a great advantage because we do have our home fans."

Recent Comments

  • joel alberto luna colon: I agree with you, UK has not only the talent, but some experience. They could go undefeated if they want read more
  • Berdj Rassam: This was expected to be an easy win for UK. read more
  • dannyone: if the cat,s play like that in every game as they should they could go all the way.so what I,m read more
  • Dale Sine: Coach Cal at it again. He is the best coach in America and the only coach that could handle coaching read more
  • Mike J.: Cal is the best coach out there. He returned Memphis to national prominence and stayed 9 years, a helluva lot read more
  • Berdj Rassam: Booker will be a key part of whether or not this team will be successful this season. read more
  • Tom Moore: Since Tubby 98 and 2003-2004 team which should've won it all, Kentucky fans ( I am true blue ) have read more
  • John Mylant: Kentucky verses Kansas I am a UK fan but bringing this into perspective, this was just one of those games. read more
  • Catherine: We have the Blue Platoon and the White Platoon, I say we should name the rest team "The Closers"! read more
  • Sandy: Great game. I couldn't take my eyes off in the second half. Proud of all of you. I thought Epps read more