Audrey Harrison's season-best all-around score of 39.225 highlighted UK's season-high 195.450 against top-ranked Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Holly Cunningham was pretty sure what was in store on Monday.
Kentucky was just two days removed from a season-low score in a meet at Georgia, the kind of effort that simply hasn't happened during Tim Garrison's time as head coach.
Practice, she figured, wasn't going to be any fun at all.
"We had one of our worst meets ever and we were expecting to come into the gym and for it to be really hard and for him to really mad at us," Cunningham said.
Cunningham was wrong, a pleasant surprise to her and her teammates.
Garrison decided the Wildcats didn't need a drill sergeant. They didn't need to be told the performance wasn't good enough because they were perfectly aware already.
"I think every athlete, every coach at some point has to have amnesia and I think that's what we needed to do because that wasn't a representation of what our team is," Garrison said. "It's not what we're about, it's not the way we train, it's not the way we compete, speaking of last week."
With that in mind, Garrison and his coaching staff took a positive tone as the Cats prepared to host No. 1 Florida.
"You don't know what to expect after a bad meet, but all the coaches know we're so much better than that and we just need to believe in ourselves," Audrey Harrison said.
The approach worked, as UK posted a season-high score of 195.450 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum.
"We definitely didn't have a perfect meet, but if someone did wobble they tried to save every tenth," Harrison said. "I saw a lot of fight and excitement and positivity."
It started on vault, UK's opening event.
Showing no signs of a hangover from last Saturday, the Cats opened with five solid scores. Stepping to the runway as the anchor for her only routine of the evening, Cunningham executed and stuck her landing for a season-high score of 9.850 to give her team a season-high score of its own, 49.000.
"She did what she was capable of," Garrison said before pausing to think. "Actually, I think she's got a little bit more in the bag. She can make that thing a little bit better, but at least she stuck the landing and that's what we're looking for. Last person on vault, bringing it home for the team, getting ready to move to the second event, we need somebody to make a statement and she did that for us."
UK rode the momentum to solid scores on the bars and beam, as gymnasts refused to let minor mistakes turn into major missteps, save for Shelby Hilton's fall on beam. But even then, Marissa Beucler and Harrison picked up their teammate with good routines.
"That was huge for us," Garrison said. "Not that we wanted the mistake to happen, but the fact that it happened and the fact that two athletes immediately after her corrected that, that was huge for us to see moving forward."
Finishing up the night on floor, the Cats posted four scores of 9.800 or better. Included in that group is Harrison, who closed out a season-high all-around score of 39.225 with a 9.825 on floor.
"Being a senior and the fact that she means so much to this program in the gym and also in the classroom, she's just a stellar person," Garrison said. "To have her come out and compete a good, solid all-around, she struggled the last couple weeks, to have her turn that around at home in front of her fans was really exciting to see."
UK's season-best score wasn't enough to take down the defending national champion Gators, who tallied a 197.175. Though he noticed Bridget Sloan's perfect 10.000 on beam en route to an all-around title, Garrison wasn't all that concerned with Florida.
"We want to be seeded for the first time in University of Kentucky gymnastics history, which means top 18 in the country after SECs to give ourselves a chance to make it national championships," Garrison said. "We really weren't worried a whole lot about what they were doing. We were running our own race tonight."
In running their own race, Garrison said the Cats "made progress" Friday night.
It was around this time last season when UK hit its stride and began shattering program records. Garrison can see a similar stretch around the corner if his team keeps up the work.
"What tells me that more anything else is what I see in the gym," Garrison said. "So now we're getting more comfortable. We've been in a competitive environment five times now. We're starting to get more comfortable in the gym. What I'm seeing in the gym is going to come through more and more on the competition floor, whether we're home or away."
James Young had 26 points and 10 rebounds in UK's 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 8. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a unique experience in conference play, facing a rematch with a familiar opponent. This weekend, Kentucky will take on that challenge for the first time.
After taking down Mississippi State 85-63 on Jan. 8 -- exactly one month before the second round with the Bulldogs -- the Wildcats have reason to be confident.
"(The coaches) really haven't told us anything special about it, but since it's our first time playing a team twice we feel like we should be able to play just like last game because last game we played great," freshman Dominique Hawkins said.
Hawkins is one of eight scholarship freshmen on the youngest team in the country, a fact that might cause some concern that the No. 18/14 Cats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) could overlook Mississippi State (13-6, 3-6 SEC), a team that has lost four in a row. UK, however, is on guard entering Saturday's game at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC TV).
"We definitely don't want to do that because we know playing in the SEC anything can happen," Hawkins said.
That's especially true away from the comforts of Rupp Arena. At home, UK is a perfect 14-0. In games not in Lexington, the Cats are just 3-5.
"Going into atmospheres on the road, I never experienced anything like this before and I think it's insane how the fans are like yelling at us, telling us names that I never heard before," Hawkins said. "It's just unique though how the fans come up with creative stuff just to try to mess with us and get in our heads."
UK last traveled to Starkville, Miss., en route to its 2012 national championship. The Cats trailed by as many as 13 points and seven with 6:28 to play before rallying to a 73-64 win. In 2010, UK needed double-doubles from John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson to survive an overtime thriller against the Bulldogs.
"I think they've already learned that any road game in the SEC is tough," Jarrod Polson said. "Us veterans have told them: It doesn't matter what team you're playing; if you're on the road in the SEC, it's going to be a dogfight."
Though the final score may have indicated otherwise, the first edition of UK-MSU was a dogfight for much of that Wednesday evening. The Cats fell victim to one of their trademark slow starts as Mississippi State took a double-digit first-half lead. And with 13:11 to go in the game, UK led by just three.
Mississippi State leading scorer Craig Sword had 19 points in that game as the Bulldogs poured in 40 points in the first half.
"They're not going to walk away from us," John Calipari said. "This is a great challenge. They left our building saying, 'We can beat these guys.' "
Previewing the matchup, Coach Cal jokingly asked reporters whether there were any promotions going on with UK coming to town. Told UK-MSU is yet another white-out game, Calipari feigned surprise.
"It's a huge game there, sellout and everything else going on," Calipari said. "It will be a hard game for us."
UK survived a tough road environment last weekend at Missouri, coming away with one of its best wins. Their confidence buoyed, the Cats are looking forward to Saturday.
"I think, honestly, we kind of like to play on the road," Polson said. "It's kind of just us against the world when we're on the road, and we kind of like that, so we're excited for the challenge and hopefully we can come out with a win."
Andrew Harrison is the latest Wildcat to blog for our "In their own words" series. (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. Our latest entry is from Andrew Harrison, who writes about the string of bad luck with weather and travel, UK's big win at Missouri and his development.
Coming off Tuesday night's win against Ole Miss, I feel like we're improving a lot on the defensive end and the game is starting to become more enjoyable for all of us. We're starting to learn. I think each individual is playing better.
Willie played his best game in a while and everyone was happy for him. I sent out a tweet Tuesday night just to show him how good we all know he is. Willie is talented. Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be. I just wanted to show him how proud of him I was for how hard he's been working.
Crazy game by @TrillGeta15 he's the best center in the country when he wants to be
Practices have been pretty tough. Even though we won a couple games, Coach is still pushing us to get better and better every day.
It's been pretty crazy lately with all the weather we've had to deal with. It was bad at LSU, and then on our trip to Missouri we were stuck on the plane for a few hours after we landed because we had to land in St. Louis and wait for the buses to come from Columbia and pick us up. That was pretty tough on our bodies with a lack of sleep, and it's also tough on your mindset.
When you're stuck on buses and planes, you don't' really think about the game. You can't help but think about when you're going to get to the hotel and are we going to be safe and stuff like that. Coach told us there is nothing we can do about it. You just try to relax and get to know each other better, crack a couple of jokes and have fun.
While we were waiting, we talked about a lot of stuff, including the NBA All-Star Game coming up. We were just giving Alex a hard time and talking about how he is going to have to guard LeBron in a couple of years. They were making fun of me saying I was going to have to guard Chris Paul and Dakari was going to have to guard Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard. We were just having fun with that.
I was surprised DeMarcus Cousins didn't make the game. I think he's one of the top two or three centers in the league. And Lance Stephenson is having a pretty good year. I'm pretty surprised neither of those guys made it.
Anyways, back to the whole travel thing. Coach just turned the waiting around into a positive. He said it just comes with the territory and you never know what's going to happen. He said it can really prove what we have inside of us and that we can show our mental toughness right now. Even though we didn't get as much as sleep and weren't on our normal routine, we had to take care of business, try to win a basketball game and get back to Kentucky. We had to show that we can still persevere and do what we have to do, and I think we did that at Missouri.
The win at Missouri was very emotional and everyone was so enthusiastic about playing the game. I think everyone could see on TV that we have the fight that we didn't show at LSU the game before and that we're growing and maturing as a team. It's exciting because the sky's the limit for what we can do.
Playing on the road in the SEC has been a fun experience for me. I like when you come out and everyone is booing you. It's fun. It makes it exciting. At the same time it's a little bit more difficult because I feel like the teams hit shots they normally don't make because they're at home and everyone is behind them, so we just have to be ready for that and be prepared to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Being on the road also makes you appreciate playing at home even more. When you come back to Rupp and play it's exciting because all the fans are rooting for you. Every time someone makes a good play, the place goes crazy. It's fun playing here.
Personally, I think I'm doing pretty well right now. I'm just trying to run the team and trying to be a better leader on and off the court and making sure I know what's going on and know what Coach wants. I'm just trying to display that out on the court. I need to make sure I'm not worried about myself and how I'm playing and be more concerned about my teammates. I'm still working on getting used to the speed of the game, making sure my teammates are involved and having fun out there playing with me.
I'll be honest, it's been pretty tough taking a lot of the criticism and stuff like that. I've never been criticized this much in basketball, but I think it's helped me grow as a person and as a player. You have to remember who you are playing for. You're playing for your family and your teammates, so you can't really worry about what everyone else is saying. There are going to be ups and downs no matter what happens. You have to keep playing. You can't look at the polls. Of course you see yourself scrolling down at the bottom of ESPN, and we were pretty surprised going down some spots after that big road win at Missouri, but that's just how it is. It just makes you hungrier.
It's been good for me having my brother here. I feel like our relationship has gotten stronger because some of the criticism we get falls on both of us. We're getting used to it and I feel like it's just putting a chip on our shoulder and making us play better.
At the end of the day, I just want to be the best point guard in the country and just become a leader of this team. For this team, every one can say they want to win a national championship, and of course we want to do that, but we just want to become better every game. That's all we're worried about right now.
School is going good right now. It's tough getting from class to class with all this snow. They didn't tell me about all this weather before I came here, but we were pretty excited about getting a snow day on Monday. We were hoping to get another one after all the ice Tuesday night.
But school is school. It's hard on us with all the basketball responsibilities we have and sometimes you're tired and don't feel like going to your tutors. What makes it easier is going through it with all of your teammates. We all know we've got a job to do.
I know some of the other guys have written about this already, but we really like hanging out with each other. We don't have a clique or anything like that on this team. We all play video games together, just talk and joke with one another like any college kid. Marcus likes to buy these toy guns and shoot people with them so we've got to be careful with him.
It's our day off so I'm going to get out of here and go enjoy a little time off. If my mom is reading this, I want to let her know I miss her and I hope she's doing well. Talk to you later, BBN.
Mark Stoops signed the highest-rated class in school history on Signing Day. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops has never been short on confidence.
From the moment he arrived in Lexington, Stoops has declared in no uncertain terms his belief in his vision, his belief in Kentucky football.
But to reel in the best class in school history barely a year into his tenure? To piece together a group that fits perfectly in terms of both personnel and character?
"If I'm honest, we maybe had a little bit better success than I thought this quick," Stoops said.
All 28 members of UK's 2014 signing class -- 16 of which are rated four-star prospects by at least one major outlet -- sent in valid National Letters of Intent before 11 a.m. ET, short-circuiting some of the drama typical of Signing Day. None of the coaches or support staff at the Nutter Training Facility for an unprecedented live webcast of the event seemed to mind.
At last check, the Kentucky class ranks 15th nationally according to Rivals.com, 20th according to both ESPN.com and Scout.com and 22nd according to 247sports.com.
"I knew we'd recruit good players," Stoops said. "Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that's not what I'm out for. I'm out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out."
On extremely short notice, Stoops and his staff did that with their first class. With just two months to work, they brought in a group that contributed immediately, which was vital to UK's future in both the short and long term.
This class, however, was even more important.
"I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program, and it was a very critical year, and I felt like we really had to hit the pavement and recruit extremely hard," Stoops said. "Could not be more proud of this staff and the way they went about their business."
The staff made waves with the 2014 class immediately, scoring verbal commitments from a variety of prospects early in the process. UK shot up recruiting rankings accordingly, drawing national attention. Pundits were impressed, but wondered whether the class would remain intact.
A year and just one de-commitment later, the answer is an emphatic yes.
"This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of," Stoops said. "This group was so solid for so long."
Of course, there were nervous moments and the occasional rumbling about a recruit falling off the wagon. In those cases, there was no substitute for the hard work that has come to define Stoops and his staff.
"We don't take anything for granted," Stoops said. "We recruited every bit as hard last night and today as we did last year or the day after Signing Day or the whole year. We recruited from start to finish extremely hard, don't take anything for granted, and go about our business the right way."
In the end, not only did UK hold on to its verbal commitments on Signing Day, but a new one also came on board.
Lloyd Tubman, a Louisville, Ky., native rated a four-star prospect by 247sports.com, announced his UK pledge late Wednesday morning and sent in his NLI not long after.
"We liked Lloyd a lot," Stoops said. "Recruited him for a full year. Again, I think he's one of the top players in the state, a great football player. And he's a great student and a fine young man."
Originally a Vanderbilt commitment and later a Penn State pledge, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound defensive end was finally swayed by defensive coordinator and lead recruiter D.J. Eliot.
"I think it just took time for him to see what we had to offer and what was the best future for him," Eliot said. "When he sat down and looked at everything, I think it was the right thing for him to do and he made that leap."
Tubman is the third-ranked player in Kentucky according to Rivals.com, meaning UK signed four of the top five prospects in the state. Quarterback Drew Barker and defensive tackles Adrian Middleton and Matt Elam will join Tubman in staying home to play their college ball.
"Really feel good about what we did in Kentucky," Stoops said. "I said that a year ago. I said that in my opening press conference about how important it was to recruit this state."
When a quarterback like Barker is in your backyard, that becomes even more important.
Asked to pick out a turning point when UK's momentum on the trail went from encouraging to unstoppable, Stoops mentioned Barker's commitment last May. Though his new coaches never encouraged him to do it, Barker took on a reputation as Kentucky's unofficial recruiting coordinator. Stoops doesn't discount Barker's role making a big Signing Day a reality.
"He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him," Stoops said. "You know, I said that a year ago as well. Players want to be around other great players."
Barker is only the most prominent example of a group of players who have already built a bond even though just seven are on campus. From the 10 Ohio signees to the two from Texas and four from Florida, UK's signees have developed a sort of collective personality.
"They've been very solid that way," Stoops said. "They've got to have a--this group is very confident in their ability, but you know what -- and I know they have some fun with the media, which is great. They have the personality, and it's good. It's good for everybody. I want them to be themselves. But as a group, they're also very humble, and I think humility is very important."
Humility will be necessary as the recruits arrive on campus and compete for playing time. Because for both players and coaches, it's time to grind after a short celebration of a memorable day for Kentucky football.
"I've read a lot of quotes from these guys that caught my eye that they know and understand that this is just the beginning of a lot of work," Stoops said. "We've got some good players that's going to help this program, but we've got to go to work now and keep on building and put another great class together and do all the work, whether it be right now in winter if they're here, or the guys that are going to show up in the summer. I think they're very special that way."
Alex Poythress scores two of his 10 points on a rim-rattling first-half dunk vs. Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within just a couple games of his college career, opponents realized they had to throw two and three defenders at Julius Randle. Otherwise, he was perfectly capable of winning a game on his own.
After more than two months of watching his star freshman swarmed from tip to buzzer, John Calipari drew up a similar game plan for Marshall Henderson.
"Obviously, Henderson could go for 40 and we were doing stuff that you don't do to a normal player," Calipari said. "He gets played like Julius gets played. You've got to keep him away, and it forces you to do different things. That's how good he is."
Henderson, of course, gets the job done in very different ways from Randle. He uses off-ball screens to create openings, hoisting nearly 75 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line. So instead of sending bodies inside at Henderson as teams do with Randle, UK took a team approach to defending the senior guard.
"You can't try to stop him from shooting; you just have to make him take some tough shots," said Aaron Harrison, who scored 16 points. "He's going to hit some tough shots but you gotta keep making him take tough shots."
Harrison began the game guarding Henderson, but he was hardly alone. When he got hung up on one of the seemingly countless screens the Ole Miss Rebels set for their leading scorer, one of his teammates switched onto Henderson.
"When a shooter runs off screens and picks and baseline run-ins like he does, that's a smart thing you can do is switch out because we are so versatile," Poythress said after a solid 10-point, seven-rebound effort. "A lot of our players can guard a lot of positions so it works to our advantage."
As expected, Henderson scored his points -- 16, to be exact -- but the Cats made him work to do it. He shot just 6-of-18 from the field and 4-of-12 from 3-point range, committing three turnovers in the process. With Henderson limited, No. 18/14 UK (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) rode a dominant second half to an 80-64 win over Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3 SEC) on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.
At different points, everyone from Aaron Harrison -- the defender who opened on Henderson -- to Alex Poythress to Willie Cauley-Stein was in one-on-one situations with him.
"That's what I really take pride in is guys think that because I'm so long and tall that I can't guard them," said Cauley-Stein, who found his December form with 17 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. "And when I do guard them it's like, you kind of peep them after a dead ball and they look at their coach like, 'What do I do? Like I can't get past him and I can't shoot over him so what am I supposed to do?' "
The approach worked as planned, but that wasn't the only reason Coach Cal implemented it.
"It makes us communicate, and that's why I wanted to do it as much as anything else," Calipari said.
With a group of players that too often falls into the trap of focusing on individual play, Calipari knew the defensive scheme he drew up against Henderson would fall flat on its face if the Cats didn't forget all that.
"When you do what we did today, they've got to talk," Calipari said. "Because you can't start switching like we did and do the things we did unless everyone talks."
Successfully putting the game plan into action was just another step in the evolution of the youngest team in the country.
"For the last week, all we've been doing is recognizing teammates doing things well, and they had to verbalize it," Calipari said. "So if a guy got a good rebound or dove on the floor, nice pass or made a shot, I needed to hear a bunch of guys saying, "Hey, Willie, great," because I'm trying to get their emotions out of their offense and how they're playing."
As UK football welcomes a new class on Signing Day, fans will be able to follow along like never before.
Coverage on UKathletics.com will begin at 8 a.m. ET on Signing Day and continue late into the morning or early afternoon. The centerpiece of the coverage will be a webcast live from the Nutter Training Facility produced by UK Sports Video that will spotlight Mark Stoops' signing class currently rated No. 13 nationally by Rivals.com as National Letters of Intent arrive.
The live stream will feature exclusive access to UK's coaches, including a special "Xs and Os Room" with star UK quarterback Tim Couch. Couch -- the top pick in the 1999 NFL Draft -- will break down film of signees with their respective position coaches, showing why the newest Wildcats project to be the future stars of UK football.
Dick Gabriel, Tom Leach, Kentucky Sports Radio's Matt Jones and former UK quarterback Freddie Maggard will join Couch on the coverage. UK's seven mid-year enrollees - including highly rated quarterback Drew Barker - will be interviewed as part of the coverage as well. As soon as live coverage concludes, the webcast will be rebroadcast on UK's official YouTube channel.
In addition to the webcast, fans are invited to be a part of Signing Day. Not only will Cat Scratches host its annual live blog, the first place to learn when signees become official, but UKathletics.com will also provide a social-media experience that will integrate the best fan posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Fans are encouraged to post with the hash tag #UK2014Class. The best content will be featured both on a social-media mosaic and on the live webcast.
Fans will also be able to welcome signees on Twitter to the Big Blue Nation using the "Congratulate a Cat" feature. The signees generating the most buzz on Twitter will be compiled on a leaderboard called "Trending Cats."
Fans unable to follow online can listen to the Leach Report from 9-10 a.m. and Kentucky Sports Radio from 10 a.m.-noon. Both shows will be broadcasting live from the Nutter Training Facility.
It all begins bright and early on Wednesday morning.
Andrew Harrison scored 14 points in UK's win at Missouri on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the positive from Kentucky's win at Missouri on Saturday.
Facing a team that almost never loses at home, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead and held on to it down the stretch. Just days removed from a disappointing loss at LSU, UK refused to wilt.
"I think it just showed our will to win," Andrew Harrison said. "We knew we had to pull it out and we did. It shows that we're growing mental toughness. We do have what it takes to win."
Offense is where UK got it done.
With the home-standing Tigers rallying, the Cats scored on their final four possessions in an 84-79 win. For the game, they shot 53.6 percent from the field and scored 1.25 points per possession, UK's best total in Southeastern Conference play.
"We've matured offensively, and guys executed," said assistant coach Orlando Antigua. "I think they understand what we're asking of them, especially Andrew. Andrew had a great floor game for us."
With his 14 points, four assists and one turnover, Harrison didn't have his best statistical game or even the biggest afternoon on his team according to the numbers, but don't make any mistake about his importance. The freshman was responsible for orchestrating the UK attack.
"He knew when to attack, when to shoot, when to pass," Antigua said. "Defensively he did a pretty good job. But more importantly than that, he kept us organized. When they were trying to throw different things at us, he was able to make the right calls. He's starting to get the feel of what we need."
With its point guard becoming steadier by the day, UK's offense has evolved into an unquestioned strength.
The Cats are first in the Southeastern Conference and sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, relying on a combination of solid 2-point shooting (53.1 percent, 25th nationally), regular free-throw line trips (free-throw rate of 54.5, seventh nationally) and unmatched offensive rebounding (offensive-rebounding rate of 42.7, first nationally).
"We're excited about the way we're playing offensively obviously," Antigua said. "We've got to continue to do that and just continue to work."
On offense, the goal of that work will be to refine and maintain. Defensively, there is more room for improvement.
For the first time in John Calipari's tenure in Lexington, UK has allowed back-to-back opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field in splitting games last week against two sets of Tigers. The Cats have also allowed more than one point per possession in four of their last six outings.
"We've been concentrating on trying to get better defensively as a unit," Antigua said. "I think with a young group, guys have to understand the kind of commitment that you need to make in order to do the things that we want to do. The good thing is that they're coming along, they're getting better."
It's also good news that the Cats can win a game like the one at Missouri even with their defense so clearly a work in progress, particularly considering how fixable some of their problems are.
"We should be a better defensive team than we are right now, but a lot of it's just transition defense," Calipari said. "How about we sprint back? How about--you know, last game we (said) every huddle, 'They're driving right and they're driving right. Make them go left.' And they just kept driving right."
Missouri scored 18 fast-break points against Kentucky, including a number off of made baskets. When the Tigers did have to set up in the half-court, Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28) continually made the Cats pay for not heeding Calipari's coaching.
Recognizing the need to change it up, Calipari went to a 2-3 zone defense for prolonged stretches for the first time this season. By no means was it perfect, but UK's length makes the prospect of using it again an interesting one.
"It worked really well," Harrison said. "We're a pretty big team, so I think it got them off guard because we usually don't play too much zone. Us being so long and being able to deflect balls and stuff, I think that affected them a little bit."
The question now becomes whether Calipari will turn to the zone again with No. 18/14 UK (16-5, 6-2 SEC) set to host Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The Rebels, of course, have a player and personality the likes of which Kentucky has not faced in Marshall Henderson. After sitting out the first two games of conference play, Henderson has returned to average 20.2 points as the Rebels have won four times in five games.
"You just know he's going to shoot," Antigua said. "We're expecting that. He's a talented, talented player. It's going to be a good challenge for our guys--and not just for our guards, but for our entire team--to make it difficult on him. He's going to get his shots up. We know that."
UK was effective against Henderson a season ago, limiting him to 5-of-19 shooting in an 87-74 win in Oxford, Miss. Henderson, however, still managed to score 21 points, a lesson that he is likely to score his points regardless.
Where the Cats aren't conceding points is in transition.
"I think everybody's going to try to test our transition defense because of our size and length," Antigua said. "Once we get in the half-court, I think we're pretty solid defensively as a unit."
To get there, Antigua sees a couple simple steps.
"I think the first part of transition defense is getting back and then communicating," Antigua said. "That's one of the things that we've been honing in on the last couple weeks: just getting back and communicating, stopping the ball first and then identifying the threats in transition."
To Harrison, it's even simpler.
"It's just a matter of sprinting back and just having a 'want to' to sprint back and be a defensive team," Harrison said. "I feel like we'll be much harder to beat if we become that defensive team."
Bria Goss scored a team-high 11 points in UK's 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
After a loss at Georgia on Thursday, the Kentucky Wildcats had dropped four of their last seven games and were searching for answers.
In the midst of that prolonged slump, Matthew Mitchell knows every second of practice counts. But on Friday, he bypassed the chance to take the court with his team.
There was more important work to be done.
"We didn't take the floor Friday," Mitchell said. "We just sat in a room and weren't leaving until we got some things straightened out about how we are going to move forward."
You see, Mitchell didn't think drills or running would cure UK's ills, at least not right away.
"I am telling you, this is not a physical thing," Mitchell said. "It is mental. It is a mindset."
Instead, the Cats spent the afternoon watching film, talking through the reasons they had gone from unbeaten barely six weeks ago to questioning their talent.
"Friday was intense, even though we didn't get on the court," Samarie Walker said. "It was kind of like a tell-all meeting. He was being very open and honest with us; we were being very open and honest with him."
With everything on the table, UK went back to work on Saturday, making up for lost time with back-to-back "great" practices. On Sunday, that work -- first mental, then physical -- paid off in a 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference).
"I am just so proud of them for pulling together and getting this victory," Mitchell said. "This was one of the top teams in the country and we are not playing particularly well right now and we have to find ourselves and to gut this one out and find a way to win is huge."
No. 13/12 UK (17-5, 5-4 SEC) went back to its roots to get it done, relying on stingy defense and capitalizing on LSU mistakes. The Tigers shot just 32.3 percent from the field and UK scored 25 points off 18 LSU turnovers to claim a slugfest in front of 6,333 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
"We're going to have off nights, but we should never have an off defensive night," said Bria Goss, who led a balanced scoring effort with 11 points. "So we can bring our defense a hundred percent of the time and just relying on our defense is just going to get us to the next step."
Jennifer O'Neill, who added 10 points in just 15 minutes off the bench, says the performance was all about transferring good practice habits to the game.
"We've been going like cutthroat, really going at each other one on one," O'Neill said. "We have a lot of drills where you play for the team you're on and we just wanted to bring that to the court today."
Perhaps the best example of that was freshman Makayla Epps, who hadn't scored a point in exactly a month after a strong start to her freshman season. Epps had to listen to some hard truths in that Friday meeting, but she didn't put her head down.
"She is unbelievably talented and strong and skilled and gifted and was just doing nothing for us," Mitchell said. "I think she probably did one of the best jobs I have ever seen a freshman just really, really getting taking to task in a film session and actually showing up the next day and trying to correct it."
Epps was quiet in five first-half minutes, but turned in one of the game's most important stretches with less than seven minutes left in the second. With LSU looking to make a run behind freshman Raigyne Moncrief -- who had a game-high 19 points -- Epps scored seven straight points in the span of less than two minutes to keep UK's lead in double digits.
"She wasn't trying to step outside her role," O'Neill said. "She was trying to do the things she was doing in practice like attacking the basket and trying to look to get the ball inside to the post."
Pleased as they may be with the win, Epps and the Cats have no choice but to attack practice the way they did Saturday.
"It's just all about being consistent," Goss said. "This game was a really good game for us and it looked like we were back to Kentucky's way of playing. It won't mean anything if we go back to being down and low-energy."
Asked a question about whether his team had overcome its January lull for good, Mitchell took the "out-of-the-woods" metaphor as far as he could think to do.
"We are working hard and in the woods right now trying to get through some briar patches and get some machetes out and hack our way through," Mitchell said. "We are not even close to being out of the woods yet. We have a lot of work to do."
Aaron Harrison scores two of his team-high 21 points to give UK a five-point lead with 19 seconds left in an 84-79 win at Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even if they might try to block out the outside noise, the Kentucky Wildcats don't live in a vacuum.
After a loss at LSU on Tuesday, they heard their toughness being questioned. They heard fans and pundits wondering whether they would ever reach their potential. They even heard the talk about their togetherness after a play on which Dakari Johnson's teammates failed to rush over to help him after a fall.
Frustrating as it may be that UK hasn't progressed as quickly as everyone might like, there is still solace to be taken in the criticisms being lobbed at the Cats.
"Look, these guys see what's--they know," John Calipari said. "They know. And the stuff that anyone's saying about this team and these players, they can change it."
No one is saying Kentucky lacks the talent needed to live up to its preseason hype. No one is questioning whether the Cats have the pieces to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
"It's that you don't compete, that you don't play with enthusiasm, you don't sprint, you're into your own self," Calipari said. "Well, you can change all that."
On Saturday, the Cats showed they might do just that.
No. 11 UK (16-5, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) notched arguably its best win of the season, taking down Missouri (16-5, 4-4 SEC), 84-79. The Tigers lack the top-10 ranking Louisville had when Kentucky beat the Cardinals, but did have one of the SEC's best home-court advantages on their side in Mizzou Arena.
"It was pretty big, especially in this building," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. "I think Coach had told us that they have like three losses since (Frank Haith) got here, so pretty big time. That's a tough environment to play in. We made some errors down the stretch but we kept fighting and we were able to hold them off."
UK led by 10 at halftime and built the margin to as many as 16 points with 14:32 left in the second half, but Missouri and its stellar backcourt wouldn't wilt. Behind Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28), the Tigers charged to within three points with 7:07 to play with a 20-7 run.
"Coaches told us they were good scorers but I didn't think they were going to get off like that," James Young said. "They had a nice right-hand strong dribble and that's what they did."
With leading shot-blocker Willie Cauley-Stein limited by foul trouble and a continuing slump, UK struggled to contain penetration. The Cats even turned to a 2-3 zone defense, which was more effective than Coach Cal's preferred man-to-man in spite of some early hiccups.
"We were going to go every free throw and then we went zone twice and they scored twice and I went, 'There's your zone,' " Calipari said. "And then I went back to it again and then we started screwing up the game a little bit. This is a long team. This is a big team. This is a good zone team if they'll scramble."
Zone or not, there was no slowing Missouri on this day. The Tigers shot 52.9 percent from the field and 56.3 percent in the second half, scoring 1.20 points per possession, most for a UK opponent this season.
All that meant the Cats would have to win with offense, which is precisely what they did. UK shot 53.6 percent as a team, 8-of-14 from 3-point range and committed just seven turnovers. When UK needed a crucial bucket, Aaron Harrison (21 points), James Young (20), Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison (14) delivered.
Missouri never got closer than three points as Aaron Harrison scored UK's final four points -- including a reverse layup to make it a two-possession game with 19 seconds left -- to close out the victory and move UK's record on the road to 2-3 this season.
"I thought Aaron was really good today," Calipari said. "And I said, 'If you look like you did against LSU, you will play five minutes in that game. I won't play you.' "
It wasn't Aaron Harrison's 5-of-13 shooting at LSU or the four turnovers Coach Cal was worried about either. Instead, it was all effort. The same goes for the team as a whole.
"You can't emphasize everything with these guys," Calipari said. "All we talked about was passion and intensity. I didn't care about any of that other stuff. Play. But again, I loved the fight, I loved the emotion they played with, the enthusiasm they played with."
Making that performance all the more impressive was the travel nightmare the Cats faced in flying to Columbia, Mo.
With an ice storm hitting the area hard -- a common thread among UK road destinations this season -- UK landed in St. Louis, Mo., on Friday night and waited for the team bus to meet them. The Cats finally arrived in Columbia at midnight CT before meeting briefly and going to bed. UK then skipped its regular morning shootaround ahead of the noon CT tip.
"It was really hard for us, but we actually got a lot of sleep out of it so I think that probably helped us and helped us focus during the game," Young said.
Whether a good night's sleep was a factor or not, UK has now played its best and worst games in the span of five days.
"All this stuff, we lose to LSU - and they beat the crap out of us," Calipari said. "They outcoached us, there was nothing--that was one of those games. And we didn't look very good. So we play a little bit better. I mean, are we this team or are we the other team?"
That's not so much a question as it is a challenge.
Alex Poythress called a team meeting following Kentucky's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Their flight home postponed by a day due to weather and stuck in Baton Rouge, La., the Kentucky Wildcats could do nothing but retire to their hotel rooms.
But instead of sulking alone after a disappointing loss to LSU, the Cats decided to put the time to good use.
"We had a team meeting actually, a players-only meeting after the game, which we shared a lot together," Dakari Johnson said.
It was Alex Poythress who called the meeting. The soft-spoken sophomore wasn't happy with how Kentucky played and summoned his teammates via text message to talk about it.
"Everybody shared their own opinion," Johnson said. "Lot of players apologized for not giving their hardest. I think it was a real important team meeting."
It wasn't one of those fire-and-brimstone meetings where one player aired all grievances. Instead, the Cats shared the floor.
"We just went one by one," Johnson said. "A lot of people apologized and just said this wouldn't happen again."
The Cats believe the meeting was a step in the right direction. Though players took responsibility for the lack of intensity and preparedness that cost them at LSU, the tone was positive because they don't believe UK all that far off track.
"You know, all the problems are fixable," Poythress said. "It's just little mental lapses. We correct those we should be in pretty good shape."
Naturally, the team meeting became the topic du jour at the media availability No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) held before its trip to face Missouri (16-4, 4-3 SEC) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. John Calipari, however, wasn't having any of it. In fact, he didn't even know the meeting happened until he was asked about it on Friday.
"Don't want to know," Calipari said. "Don't want to know, don't care. Let's play. This is all about what we do on the court preparing to go to war, understanding the other team is excited to play you. That's all that this comes down to."
It's hard to blame Coach Cal for taking a wait-and-see approach. After all, there was talk of UK having turned a corner before the setback in Baton Rouge.
"(I've) never had a team this young," Calipari said. "This is the youngest team I've ever had. I wish they would have changed right away, but it's more of how they think then just trying to change sole basketball habits."
What he means is that the Cats still tie their emotional state to their own play, not the team's. If a guard misses a shot but a big man grabs the rebound and dunks it home, the guard hangs his head. If a big man isn't getting touches but his teammates are filling it up from the perimeter, the big man still wants the ball.
That switch in mindset has been an emphasis all season, but it remains an issue.
"It's not that it's not being addressed; it's just a hard thing to crack," Calipari said. "You have to be more into your team than how you're playing. You have to bring us great energy and passion, and you have to play for your team more than yourself. That's a hard one when you've got a bunch of 18-, 19-year-olds."
For UK to win on Saturday, those 18- and 19-year olds won't have much choice but put team above self.
The Cats are facing one of the toughest road challenges in the SEC. The Tigers have lost just once all season at Mizzou Arena and that loss to Georgia on Jan. 8 ended the nation's longest home winning streak. In the last three seasons, Missouri owns a 40-2 record in Columbia, Mo.
"We just have to know that they're a tough team and everybody's going to give us their best game," Johnson said. "We just have to be prepared for that."
Of course, a lot of that home success has to do with the fact that the Tigers are simply a good team.
"Guard play is really good," Calipari said. "Their inside people are very role-oriented. They do what they're supposed to do. The big kid sets great screens, gets around the goal and makes baskets. But their guard play, the combined three of their guards are as good as we'll play in or outside of our league."
Those three guards -- Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross -- are the Tigers' three leading scorers. Together, they are averaging 52.8 points per game and accounting for more than 70 percent of Missouri's scoring production.
"I think they have some really nice guards," Poythress said. "I think we just have to come in, play some defense and be able to guard them."
But as always, it's not the matchups that Coach Cal is most concerned about. It's the way his team is playing.
"Lose yourself into the team," Calipari said. "When we do that, you'll start seeing change."