The chatter would continue, with Miles - a freshman guard - not only saying "nobody is invincible," but also saying "they don't play that hard" of the Wildcats ahead of a Sweet 16 matchup. The top-seeded Cats (36-0) weren't there to hear it, but they surely heard about it soon after when their own locker room opened.
Karl-Anthony Towns mostly nodded quietly.
"I mean, everyone has an opinion," Towns said. "Just take it as you get, I guess. We've always been criticized for everything. So it's OK."
Willie Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, had a bit more vocal reaction. The player most agree to be the best defender in the country, known for his tireless energy in guarding post players and wing players alike, wasn't so sure about the play-hard critique.
"You've never even watched us play in person or you've never even watched us play people that are supposed to beat you and you end up beating them by 30, 40 points," Cauley-Stein said. "But we don't play hard? I mean--If you're playing against teams like UCLA, Kansas, that are good teams and you're able to do what we did to them without playing hard, imagine what we do playing hard. That's kind of my mentality."
Cauley-Stein has a point there.
UK has steamrolled through 36 games this season without a loss, staying atop the polls throughout and winning games by an NCAA-leading margin of 20.8 points per game. The Cats have won all five of their postseason games by double digits to boot, leading some to wonder why the Mountaineers would poke the bear that is Kentucky with anything other than respectful, boilerplate quotes.
Cauley-Stein knows better. He also doesn't mind.
"No, I expect them to say stuff like that," Cauley-Stein said. "I don't necessarily know a team that at this point wouldn't say something like that. That's good. Adds fuel to the fire. Puts a little personal stuff into it. It's all good stuff."
With an Elite Eight berth going to the winner, the stakes were already high enough, said Cauley-Stein. Now the Cats have something more to play for than just a win. Pride's on the line.
"Now I'm kind of juiced," Cauley-Stein said. "This game is going to be really fun. They made it kind of personal now."
The game, based on West Virginia's physical full-court defense and Kentucky's proven ability to deal with such a style, was already plenty compelling. With a little friendly back and forth added to the mix, CBS becomes the place to be at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.
"It's just going to be one of them games, that I'm telling you, if you want to watch a good game, you're going to want to watch this game because dudes is lit," Cauley-Stein said. "Dudes is really ready to play."
Excited as the Cats might be to have a little fuel added to the fire, one thing is noticeably absent from any of their responses to questions about West Virginia's pregame predictions.
Trash talk of their own.
"We don't worry about that," Towns said. "You know what's the thing? It's usually always the people that are the best that say the least."
The Cats are happy to let their play speak for itself.
UK will face West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- It may seem just like yesterday for some Big Blue faithful.
Kentucky was riding high, a No. 1 seed in the East Regional Finals looking to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The only team standing in the way was the No. 2 seed in that region, West Virginia.
Played in a cold, wet and dreary Syracuse, N.Y., the Wildcats missed their first 20 3s against the Mountaineers, finishing just 4 of 32, and lost 73-66.
"To even be in the game 0-20, I must have had a hell of a team, which I did," UK head coach John Calipari said Wednesday.
Asked if he could take any lessons from that 2010 game, Huggins replied nonchalantly.
"If Cal promises to miss his first 20 3s like they did in 2010 that would help," he said, "if we could get him to do that."
On Thursday, Kentucky, again the No. 1 seed, will face fifth-seeded West Virginia for the third time in the last six NCAA Tournaments. While no member of either 2010 team is still playing, both schools' players have been reminded of the game.
West Virginia, being the victors that day, naturally have used the history lesson as a sense of pride and motivation.
"That's all we've been hearing all week, is the team that beat that team in 2010, but the reality is we play two different styles," West Virginia senior guard Juwan Staten said. "That team had a lot of size and they played a slower down game. But we're going to be in your face and we're going to be pressing. Ultimately that doesn't mean anything but it gives us a lot of motivation and a lot of confidence."
To put things in perspective, Harrison was just a freshman in high school at the time that game was played. UK's current freshman class was in its second semester of eight grade, preparing for the upcoming rigors of high school, and Devin Booker was just 13 years old.
Asked about it Wednesday, the Wildcats paid no mind to the game, pointing out that it was a different team entirely.
"I was probably playing basketball somewhere or doing something else while they were playing," Trey Lyles said.
"I know we didn't shoot the ball well, but other than that, that's all I really know," Aaron Harrison said about the game. "I liked DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. I was a fan."
One current Wildcat who was watching the game was freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, only he was watching the Mountaineers more than the Wildcats.
"I was watching," Towns said. "Close friend of mine played for West Virginia, too. Da'Sean Butler."
Even still, with both rosters being entirely different, styles of play having changed, and much more, members of the Big Blue Nation remember the game all too well. On Coach Cal's weekly call-in show Monday, he was asked about the 2010 game before he could remind the caller that the Cats won one year later - and more recently - in the tournament.
Sometimes it's the most painful memories that linger, but the fact that the fans do remember that game and have reminded the players about it comes as no surprise to Lyles.
"I wouldn't say it surprises me, knowing Big Blue Nation and how they love basketball and stuff like that," Lyles said. "Every team was their best team so of course they're going to hold onto something like that and they just want us to beat a team, revenge them I guess."
Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis will face West Virginia's full-court press on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - The theories and strategies of how to beat Kentucky have been thrown out all year dating back to August when the Wildcats were handling pro teams in the Bahamas.
You've got to spread them out, you need to hit a bunch of 3s, you need to score in transition, a physical team is one that can get the Wildcats out of their game, they said.
"They gotta run out (of strategies) eventually," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to the Cats' round of 32 game versus Cincinnati. "They try everything. You got to though. You can't get mad at it. I would do the same thing."
Cincinnati's physical style of ball was the latest to go toe to toe with undefeated Kentucky. Like the 35 teams before the Bearcats, it proved to not be enough, though despite UK leading by 19 points with just over one minute left in the game, some believe the Bearcats actually exposed vulnerability in Kentucky.
Next up is No. 20/21 ranked and No. 5 seeded West Virginia, affectionately known as "Press Virginia" due to its full-court pressure defense applied on nearly every possession following both a made or missed basket.
The Wildcats have faced multiple teams that have applied their press to them this year, namely Louisville and Arkansas, but many believe yet again that this may be the formula to finally crack the as-of-now unbreakable Kentucky will.
"We know that they're going to play hard and it's going to be a physical game, and we have been preparing for that all weekend," freshman guard Devin Booker said.
Preparing for it and facing it are two different items, however. Against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament championship, Kentucky excelled against the Razorbacks' press, scoring 78 points and cruising to victory in the second half.
In that game, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for eight assists to just one turnover, and showed how effective two point guards on the floor simultaneously can be against a press.
"With two point guards in most of the game it's hard to press us," Tyler Ulis said. "(Andrew Harrison) can get the ball, I can get the ball, Aaron and Book can also handle the pressure, and Trey (Lyles). It's hard to press us, and then once we get in the open court it's lobs."
Over the last five games, the two point guards have proven to be especially effective, distributing 37 assists to just 10 turnovers (3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio). Still, West Virginia, which leads the nation in turnovers forced and steals, didn't think its press would be rendered ineffective against the Cats Thursday and that eventually it would take its toll on Kentucky physically.
"I mean, everybody that we play, their guards, they can break the press - I mean at the beginning of the first half they might be making good decisions but then they don't realize they don't have enough depth on their bench and the second half is going to catch up," West Virginia senior guard Gary Browne said. "Sometime during the game we can see it. We get real excited when things like that happen. I feel like the whole bench, the whole team can realize that and that's when we know, we go harder and more aggressive."
Browne's senior backcourt mate Juwan Staten echoed his sentiments on wearing the opponent down, saying the Mountaineers were the best conditioned team in the country, and used West Virginia's tough, physical practices as an example.
"Why wouldn't it (work)?" Staten said. "We've been playing this way all year, we've had success against everybody no matter what style or what type of players they have. That's the only way we play and it's just up to us to make it work."
Similar to its bordering state to the east, Kentucky has worn teams down all season as well, typically occurring midway to late in the second half, as evidenced in gritty road wins at Florida, LSU and Georgia, as well as Saturday's third-round NCAA Tournament victory over Cincinnati. Kentucky has also talked about the excitement of seeing the opposition begin to wither under fatigue.
"It will be different because we have nine guys (Coach Cal) plays, rotating in and out, two point guards, a lot of people who can handle the ball so that's going to be a little bit different with the rotation and stuff like that," Ulis said.
Another advantage for Kentucky in attacking West Virginia's press will be the Wildcats' size. Kentucky's starting lineup stands at 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-0. The Cats also have three players coming off the bench standing at 6-6, 6-9 and 7-0. By comparison, West Virginia's starters are 6-1, 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 and 6-9.
"I don't know what you do about that," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "I've thought about that, but I haven't really come up with an answer."
"Sometimes you can't dribble around the press, so it's good for them to be able to pick it up and look over defenders, step through presses and stuff like that," Ulis said.
One seemingly distinct advantage of the press for Kentucky is that it speeds up the game and the Wildcats have flourished in fast-paced games. Of the seven games Kentucky has played ending in regulation that have featured 70 or more possessions, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by 34.0 points per game. West Virginia, for its part, has played in 13 such games and has the 29th-fastest adjusted tempo in the country, according to KenPom.com.
"I think we enjoy just playing, period," Aaron Harrison said. "In fast-paced games - yeah, I do think we enjoy fast-paced games."
Now, West Virginia's method of answering the question that no team has been able to answer will be put to the test. How do you beat Kentucky? The Mountaineers say it's all about their press, and Coach Cal says they won't stray away from that Thursday.
"I said what (Huggins has) done with this team, incredible," Calipari said. "And again, he's taken kids, they've gotten better individually and they've come together and say here's the style we can win with, and that's how they're playing and they won't get away from it, that's who they are. The players now have taken great pride in it."
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a Sweet 16 matchup with Bob Huggins' West Virginia team on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Bob Huggins owed one to John Calipari.
The two coaches share a close bond, so after Calipari came to a fundraiser for the cancer center at West Virginia, Huggins had to repay the favor when Calipari asked him to speak at a clinic in Kentucky.
Huggins went in blind, knowing only that plenty of UK fans would be in attendance. So consider his surprise when he asked Calipari what he should discuss with the crowd.
"He says, '1-3-1, everybody wants to know how to beat the 1-3-1,' " Huggins said. " 'They know I didn't figure it out so they want everybody to do it.' "
It hadn't been long since West Virginia's quirky zone defense had flummoxed UK into 4-of-32 3-point shooting and an Elite Eight loss in 2010 and the wounds were still fairly fresh. Calipari just didn't much care.
"You've got to have a lot of self-assurance to, you know, bring somebody in to talk about a 1-3-1," Huggins said. "... But that's Cal. He's been a very dear friend."
The two dear friends will match wits again on Thursday at approximately 9:45 p.m. in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. Top-seeded Kentucky carries a perfect 36-0 mark into the Sweet 16, while Huggins' fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-9) are an overachieving bunch that, per usual, match the character of their coach.
"I've always respected what he does coaching his basketball teams, how hard they play, how physical they play, how they rebound," Calipari said.
Huggins had similar respect for Calipari as a coach, praising the work he's done to shape a group of young, talented players into the best defensive team in the country, but it's the man he's gotten to know away from the court Huggins really respects.
"He's more than a basketball coach," Huggins said. "Somebody asked me what separates Cal from other coaches, and Cal and I have gone to Europe together and done a bunch of things. And I say, well, most other basketball coaches aren't getting on a plane and read U.S. News and World Report or Money Magazine or those kind of things. Cal is a very diverse guy and I think he's kept things, I think, in a very good perspective. He's a great family guy, just, and he's been a good friend."
It's a friendship that started years ago.
Huggins says the two were introduced while he was a player at West Virginia and Calipari in high school, while Calipari says it was a few years later when Huggins had recently been named head coach at Walsh College. Regardless which is true, they've grown close over the years, sharing similar backgrounds - Calipari grew up in Moon Township, Pa., less than 80 miles from Huggins' hometown of Morgantown, W.Va. - and have moved through the coaching ranks since.
Over the course of their careers, Huggins has an 8-2 record against Calipari, the best of any coach who has faced him at least three times. Seven of Huggins' wins came while Calipari was at Memphis or UMass.
That history has become a part of regular conversation between Calipari and Huggins, and it's even spread to extended families, as evidenced by the pair's favorite story.
It was in 2002. Huggins was at the Pittsburgh airport when he started to sweat and experienced shortness of breath. An ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital and Huggins was in and out of consciousness as he had a heart attack. At one point when he came to, the paramedic tending to him revealed why he was taking such good care of Huggins.
"So I came to and I was fairly coherent at that time and he said, 'Coach, listen, I can't let you die, I'm John Calipari's cousin, and you can't die until we beat you at least once,' " Huggins said.
Huggins would of course live and return to coaching, and Calipari has gotten two wins against him, including one in the 2011 NCAA Tournament to avenge that 2010 defeat. But come Thursday evening, that's irrelevant.
"When you're playing in these games, none of the past matters," Calipari said. "Whether I was 12-0 against a coach, it doesn't matter, this is a one-game shot."
In a calendar week plagued by injuries for former Cats in the NBA, Terrence Jones suffered a partially collapsed lung nine minutes into a 118-108 Houston Rockets win over the Denver Nuggets on March 19. Jones is scheduled for re-evaluation on March 27, but is expected to miss at least the next three Houston contests. Three other UK alumni-- Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Enes Kanter-- ended the seven-day span on the sideline with minor injuries, but were each poised for a return to action once the week was over.
Performance of the week
Nerlens Noel | Philadelphia 76ers: 97, New York Knicks: 81 | March 20, 2015 In the second of back-to-back Sixers wins (and Philly's 17th victory of 2014-15), Noel guided his team with 23 points, 14 rebounds, five steals, and three blocks on the day. The 20-year-old's historic numbers have moved him into serious contention for the NBA's Rookie of the Year Award with under a month remaining in the regular season.
76ers' Nerlens Noel became the youngest player in NBA history to put up at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocks in a game.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (37-33) In three straight Phoenix wins, Bledsoe ignited the Suns on both ends of the floor. Starting out the week with 21 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds and two steals in a 102-89 victory over the Knicks, Bledsoe capped off the winning streak with a career-high 34 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in a 117-102 win over the Rockets.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (23-45) Before missing Wednesday and Friday with a strained right calf, Cousins notched a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double (complemented by five assists, three blocks and two steals) in a 110-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 16. The defeat was the third installment in a four-game Sacramento losing streak.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (37-32) Before missing games on Thursday and Friday with a sprained left ankle suffered during Thursday's shootaround, Davis dominated his first two games of the week in one Pelicans win and one loss. "The Brow" tallied 36 points, 14 rebounds, nine blocks, seven assists and one steal in a 118-111 double-overtime loss to the Nuggets on March 15. Two days later, Davis recorded 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal in an 85-84 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Archie Goodwin | #20 SG | Phoenix Suns (37-33) After filling the box score with seven points, five assists, four rebounds, and three steals in the Suns' win over the Knicks on March 15, Goodwin averaged 10.5 points (6.5 more than his season average) over the next two Phoenix wins. A reverse alley-oop jam by way of Suns teammate Gerald Green earned the Arkansas native NBA.com's Dunk of the Night honors on March 19.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (39-30) Prior to sitting out Friday's contest with the Hawks due to a sprained left ankle, Kanter posted three straight double-doubles to begin the week. Kanter averaged 19.7 points and 13.7 points over the span, leading OKC to a 2-1 record.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (40-29) Thanks to two double-double performances from Wall over a three-game stretch, the Wizards finished last week with a home win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a road win over the Utah Jazz, and a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in LA. Over the span, Wall averaged 21.3 points, 9.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds.
Brandon Knight scored 30 points in UK's round-of-32 win over West Virginia in 2011. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and West Virginia haven't met in the regular season since 2008. They haven't met at one of the two schools' campuses since 1992.
On Thursday night, they'll meet in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years.
It's odd that it's worked out that way, but perhaps it's also quite predictable at the same time due to the two teams' close proximity, their recent history of close games and head coaches' friendship.
"Cal called me about three weeks ago and said, 'You know they're going to put us in the same bracket don't you?' " West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said following his team's 69-59 third-round victory over Maryland on Sunday night.
It's not the first time Coach Cal has been correct about potential matchups in the NCAA Tournament. Following the reveal of the NCAA Tournament bracket March 15, Calipari said it's usually a waste of time to look too far ahead in the tournament because the team you think may advance ends up losing.
He did happen to mention one team in particular, though.
"Let me just tell you, West Virginia - Bob Huggins - probably got more out of their team than any team in the country and here they are," Calipari said. "You win a couple of games and you may be facing them."
If recent history is any indicator, Thursday's Midwest Regional semifinal should be one to remember.
The two teams' meeting in 2010 is one all Kentucky fans wish they didn't remember.
UK, the No. 1 seed in the East Regional, met the No. 2 seed West Virginia with a trip to the Final Four on the line. UK went 10 for 20 on two-point field goals in the first half, but 0 for 8 from beyond the arc. Conversely, West Virginia went 8 for 15 from beyond the arc and 0 for 16 on two-point field goals. The 3-point shooting woes continued in the second half for UK as the Cats missed their first 20 3-point attempts in the game and finished just 4 for 32 in a 73-66 loss.
One year later, Kentucky topped West Virginia 71-63 in Tampa, Fla., to advance to the Sweet 16. In that game, West Virginia closed out the first half on a 22-7 run to lead by eight points, but UK scored the first 11 points of the second half and got a career-high 30 from star freshman Brandon Knight, who also sealed the game at the foul line by making six free throws in the final minute.
"We know now they beat us in 2010, we beat them pretty good in 2011," Coach Cal said. "It's always a good game."
Those two meetings will surely be one of the main storylines entering Thursday's Sweet 16 showdown. The other will be Huggins' 8-2 career record versus Calipari, which Huggins said Sunday he can't explain.
"I've got great respect for him and for what he's done and what he's been able to accomplish," Huggins said. "So, like I said, he'll have them ready. He always has them ready."
The Wildcats must be ready for a physical affair in which ball security will be of the utmost importance. West Virginia, which has committed the most fouls in the country, plays an up-and-down style and loves to press the ball, earning it the nickname "Press Virginia." The Mountaineers' adjusted tempo is the 29th fastest in the country, according to KenPom.com, and its turnover and steal percentages are tops nationally.
After playing in the rugged Big 12 Conference, which earned a nation-leading seven bids to the Big Dance, West Virginia said it would not be intimidated Thursday.
"I mean, I wish I could sit here and tell you we're definitely going to win," said Huggins, whose team also owns wins over fellow Sweet 16 teams North Carolina State and Oklahoma. "I can't do that. But I can tell you that we're not going to be scared."
"It's another team," Mountaineers forward Devin Williams said. "They put their drawers on the same way we do. So that's pretty much it. We've just got to prepare, and get our minds right."
Jennifer O'Neill had 16 points, six rebounds and five steals in UK's NCAA Tournament loss to Dayton on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
It wasn't supposed to end this way, not for the winningest senior class in school history.
Kentucky was supposed to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and send Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill, Jelleah Sidney and Azia Bishop off in style.
It wouldn't happen that way.
"A disappointing end to a season that I will always remember," Matthew Mitchell said.
Instead of moving on to Albany, N.Y., and a possible Sweet 16 matchup with rival Louisville, the Wildcats (24-10) saw their season end on their home floor with a 99-94 loss to Dayton. The seventh-seeded Flyers built an early nine-point lead, but UK battled back to go up five with less than nine minutes remaining behind Makayla Epps, who scored 29 points.
From there it was a seesaw battle, with Dayton burying a pair of 3-pointers in the final 1:08. The shots by Kelley Austria and Amber Deane both broke ties, with Deane's serving as the go-ahead basket. It came with the shot clock running down and O'Neill guarding her with 24 seconds remaining.
"Personally it's tough for me just because I'm the one that really lost the game," O'Neill said. "I let her hit that 3-point shot. That's deflating to my team. We were on a little run and as a senior I can't make mistakes like that."
Of course, O'Neill - who scored 16 points - was far from the only player who played a role in the defeat. Dayton shot 56.6 percent from the field and 11 of 18 from 3-point range, numbers that ballooned to 64 percent and 5 of 8 after halftime.
The defense that's locked down over the last three weeks returned to the form that appeared too often prior to a meeting the four seniors called with Mitchell on Feb. 24.
"It's just plagued us all year: inconsistency at inopportune moments," Mitchell said. "I could really kind of tell it from the beginning. There's just certain things that you can notice from players and we just did not have the focus and the energy and the effort that we needed."
The lack of energy ultimately spelled the end for those seniors. Goss and O'Neill appeared alongside Mitchell at the postgame press conference visibly emotional and Goss had trouble composing herself when asked about playing her final game.
"It's just going to be tough," Goss said before taking a long pause and asking for the next question.
Bishop did not play in the game, serving a one-game suspension for a "failure to uphold team standards" on Friday night related to the team's 11 p.m. curfew.
"I hate that that was the way her career ended," Mitchell said. "I really wanted to get to next week because I know she feels terrible about the situation. I feel terrible about the situation. But if you're in my shoes, you must do the right thing or if you don't have integrity you don't really have a program."
With Bishop, UK's top post presence, sidelined, the Cats were outrebounded 42-34. Mitchell didn't know whether her presence would have changed the outcome, but that doesn't much matter to him.
"I can tell you," Mitchell said, "if she'd played and whether we'd lost or won the game, I think we'd have lost a bunch in the future if I don't uphold the standard."
What makes that so difficult is Bishop and her fellow seniors were the ones who helped reestablish that standard in calling that meeting and lifting UK to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They won't get to be there as the Cats look to build on that foundation next season, but the role they played won't be forgotten.
"A disappointing end to a season that I will always remember," Mitchell said. "And I'm real grateful to our seniors. They had a great career here and what they did for us down the stretch to help us know what we need to know what we need to do going forward I'll always remember."
Karl-Anthony Towns had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks in UK's win over Cincinnati to advance to the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Lindsay Travis, CoachCal.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Willie Cauley-Stein's dunk will be the play fans remember as the one that turned a first-half nail-biter into a double-digit round-of-32 win over Cincinnati.
As big as it was, the players say it was the moment that followed that precipitated the run UK used to take a seven-point lead into halftime.
In fact, they can remember the exact time left on the clock.
"I think our identity was shown, I think, with 2:44 left in the first half," Karl-Anthony Towns said.
"We said it in the huddle when there's 2:44 left in the half, 'We have to push it. We have to push it now,' " Cauley-Stein said.
There was a media timeout immediately after Cauley-Stein's dunk and before he stepped to the line to convert the and-one. In the huddle, the Cats weren't so happy with themselves as they led eighth-seeded Cincinnati by a score of just 25-24.
"We were really upset with ourselves and we just told ourselves we wanted to lock down and we wanted to get all stops and capitalize offensively," Towns said.
UK would do just that, reeling off a 10-point run en route to a 64-51 win to advance past the Bearcats and into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. In the huddle that preceded it, John Calipari wasn't the one delivering the buckle-down message.
"We looked at each other in the huddle and Coach Cal just listened to us talk to each other," Towns said. "We literally came together and we said, 'We need to get stops. We can't let this happen. We can't keep letting this happen.' And we made a goal for ourselves. We didn't want them to score one point for the rest of the half and we did that."
As significant as the huddle was in regards to Saturday's outcome, it was perhaps just as encouraging for UK's prospects of building on their NCAA-record 36-0 start to the season. The Cats seem to be seizing control of their own destiny.
"Coach wants us to be empowered," Trey Lyles said. "Coach wants it to be our team. We're starting to do that now and at the end of the first half we came together as a group. We told each other that we needed to lock down defensively and if we do that defensively then the lead will push. You saw that at the end the half and then the second half we did that as well."
Double the energy
When the moment gets big and the Cats need energy there's one, no, two players the team looks to: the Harrison twins.
"(Aaron) and his brother are kind of the throttle on the team," Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to the Cats' matchup with Cincinnati. "If they're saying they're going to come out playing different, then they're going to come out playing different. In return, everybody's going to come out playing different. They're kind of the fuel to the fire."
Against an unrelenting Bearcats squad, the Harrisons combined for 18 points, 13 for Aaron and five for Andrew. The all-clutch shooting guard went 3 of 7 from deep, while the sophomore point guard had two baskets and a pair of assists in 26 minutes of playing time. Oh, and Andrew Harrison had zero turnovers, his third turnover-free game in a row.
"It's ridiculous how much they both improved," UK head coach John Calipari said. "They're both winning players now. They're both winning players. They both are not afraid to make game-winning shots because they're not afraid to miss game-winning shots. They'll make free throws. They're both defending better."
Aaron Harrison picked up a rare technical against the Bearcats that helped energize the team. Maybe not as much as Willie Cauley-Stein's poster-worthy dunk, but it helped get the Cats going.
"Yeah, anytime some stuff like that happens, it doesn't matter who, you're going to automatically be juiced," Cauley-Stein said. "Anytime somebody is talking trash to you you're going to go back at them."
After missing both attempted 3s against Hampton and scoring his only three points from the free-throw line, Aaron Harrison found his way out of a shooting slump Saturday.
"Aaron can do other things like get to the rim, so once he hit some layups and stuff like that the goal opens up for him," Andrew Harrison said.
On a team packed to the rafters with talent, Coach Cal thinks the twins don't get enough credit for what they do and what they did last season.
"They carried us to the final game last year, those two," Calipari said. "You watch the tapes. Those two carried us to where we were. Struggled a little bit in the final game. We never would have gotten into the final game without those two. Now they're starting to do the same thing again. It says something about who they are as players in their heart to win and their will to win."
Booker not worried about shooting slump
So far in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Devin Booker has not reloaded a 3 one single time. He's attempted seven shots and they've hit every part of the rim, but none have fallen.
You would think the normally hot-handed freshman would be worried that his shot hasn't found its way in. But you'd be incorrect.
"It's nothing new to me, but like I said, I've stressed it, that's the least of my concerns right now as long as my team is winning," Booker said. "If we're finding other ways to win, that's definitely fine with me."
The shots may not be falling right now, but Coach Cal wants the freshman to keep shooting.
"We told him after the game, hey, you've got to keep shooting because there's going to be a game we need him to make shots or we can't win," Calipari said. "It just didn't happen to be this one or the first one. You can miss all these ones. It doesn't matter. The next one's coming up, we may need you to make some shots."
Booker didn't go scoreless vs. Cincinnati. His 3s weren't falling but his 2s were and the freshman shooting guard found other ways to produce for his team, such as driving to the basket.
"If my shot is not falling I try to assert myself in different ways, whether that's defending, rebounding, or like you said, attacking the rim," Booker said. "That's what I did today in transition. It kind of opened up a few times for me and I took advantage of it."
In addition to his six points, the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year had four rebounds in 22 minutes of play. And post-Cincinnati, he feels like his shot will come soon.
"I think it's going in," Booker said. "It feels good. I actually don't know what it is, but I'm going to keep shooting and I feel like we're going to be all right.
"I don't know if it's a good thing I'm not on fire, but like I said, it's going to come along. I know it is. My team trusts me, the whole coaching staff trusts me."
Willie Cauley-Stein's first-half dunk spurred a 10-0 UK run that gave UK the lead against Cincinnati. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After defeating Hampton, Willie Cauley-Stein said he wasn't Superman.
Further proof may be needed.
With 2:46 remaining in the first half of Kentucky's 64-51 third-round victory over Cincinnati, Cauley-Stein took a pass from Tyler Ulis and took flight from the left side of the lane, throwing down one of the biggest and baddest dunks of the college basketball season, and certainly the still young NCAA Tournament.
"I feel like I might have turned into Superman on that, but I'm just Clark Kent, you know what I'm saying?" Cauley-Stein said. "I just went into a little phone booth and turned into Superman real quick."
Unfortunately for Cincinnati (23-11), there was no kryptonite to be found.
After trailing for 7:42 of the opening 17:14, UK never trailed again following the junior forward's dunk that put UK up 25-24.
After the game, many wondered, where does this dunk rank in the ever-growing collection of Cauley-Stein posters?
"It might be worse than the dude from Florida," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, I don't think they put the kid back in the game. It was nasty."
"Probably top three," Ulis said. "Not No. 1. The Florida dunk is No. 1. Definitely."
Whether it was his best dunk or not is a matter of preference, but it did share a number of similarities to that of his poster over Florida's Devin Robinson.
Aside from both posters occurring on the left side of the lane and with Cauley-Stein already having picked up a head of steam, they both came against 6-foot-8 freshmen. Perhaps the naivety of youth played a role in contesting the dunk.
"I don't get it," Andrew Harrison said. "I don't know why you would jump. Just swipe it. Run-through swipe, that's what I would do."
"We don't know why people jump when he's already in the air," Trey Lyles said. "It's pretty much over after that. So if you jump after that there's something wrong with you."
Second, and of much more importance to the Cats, both dunks gave Kentucky the lead for good in what had otherwise been back-and-forth, tight games. Against Florida, it was the ensuing free throw after the dunk that gave Kentucky a 45-44 lead with 12:09 to play in the game. On Saturday, Cauley-Stein's dunk pushed the Cats ahead 25-24. Both times the dunk fueled UK.
"That's why I think Coach harps on just dunking it all the time because it just gives everybody so much juice," Cauley-Stein said. "It gets the crowd going, especially something like that. It was crazy."
It also helps push Kentucky defensively, something it does better than any other team in the country.
"It got us all going, got us a little hyped, got Willie going a little bit," Lyles said. "Defensively, like I said, we started to lock down at the end of the half."
Cauley-Stein's three-point play was part of a 10-0 run for Kentucky to close out the half and turn a once five-point deficit into a seven-point halftime lead, giving the Cats momentum, and confidence to know their defense is capable of shutting the Bearcats out.
"We said it in the huddle when there's 2:44 left in the half, 'We have to push it. We have to push it now,' and we succeeded at it," Cauley-Stein said "Anytime you can execute what you're thinking is good."
Fresh off a 21-point, 11-rebound performance against Hampton, Karl-Anthony Towns had another strong game against Cincinnati, scoring eight points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots, but it wasn't just Towns who played well against the Bearcats. It was a balanced, team effort, with no one player shining well over another.
"Every game I'm not going to go for 21," Towns said. "They're not going to just let me go for 21, but that's the beauty of this team. My brothers, everyone's so talented that it doesn't matter if you get eight. But if you get eight, he gets 10, he gets eight, he gets eight, he gets 10, it adds up to be a lot of points."
There was Lyles, who posted his second double-double of the year with 11 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Ulis scored nine points, dished out five assists and didn't commit a turnover. Not to be forgotten, Aaron Harrison scored a team-high 13 points, and his brother finished with five points, two assists, no turnovers and one of the biggest baskets in the game: a tough layup while getting fouled midway through the second half. Cauley-Stein scored nine points, blocked two shots and played suffocating defense.
In all, Kentucky had five players score at least eight points, but nobody register more than 13. The Cats were outrebounded by seven, outscored in the paint by two and shot just 37 percent from the field, their lowest percentage since shooting 28.1 percent on Jan. 10 in a double-overtime victory at Texas A&M, but still won by 13.
"I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits," UK head coach John Calipari said. "It shows them they don't have to make shots to win.
"The good news is there's enough guys that, if two or three aren't playing well, we can still survive. What they learned today is we don't have to shoot the ball well, and we can still survive. You just want them going into every game saying, it doesn't matter what happens. We can still win. And that's the mentality I want them in."
It also doesn't hurt to have a guy who can dunk a player out of a game.
"I didn't even see it," Andrew Harrison said. "I didn't get to see it, I was talking to somebody on the side of me. I just saw everybody standing up and I saw a dude went down on the ground. 'Not this again.' "
Aaron Harrison scored 13 points in UK's win over Cincinnati on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Cincinnati looked for a moment to have Kentucky rattled.
After tempers flared early in the second half, Aaron Harrison was whistled for a technical foul for bumping into the Bearcats' Octavius Ellis. Officials went to the monitor to check the play and John Calipari shouted at the normally cold-blooded sophomore, "What did you do?"
Cincinnati capitalized on the exchange and cut UK's lead to three points. The unbeaten season and bid for a ninth championship seemed in jeopardy.
Then Kentucky happened.
"Everybody I think just locked in defensively," Trey Lyles said.
Over the next 15-plus minutes, the top-seeded Cats outscored Cincinnati 31-15 to build an insurmountable lead. The Bearcats hit just 6 of 29 from the field during the stretch and UK (36-0) clinched a Sweet 16 berth with a 64-51 victory in spite of shooting just 37 percent from the field.
Harrison was UK's top offensive threat, scoring 13 points. He buried three 3-pointers, including a crucial one with 11:54 left that gave UK an eight-point lead.
"We're familiar with what Aaron can do," Dakari Johnson said. "He hits big shots."
From that point on, UK's lead would never dip below seven and grew to as large as 19, though the Bearcats battled until the buzzer.
"I thought Cincinnati played well," Calipari said. "They didn't back away. They came right at us. I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits. It shows them they don't have to make shots to win. You can miss them all. No, you can't miss them all. You can miss most of them, and you can still win games if you defend, you rebound and you play that way, make your free throws, and they did."
UK would have to make its free throws in this one, as Cincinnati took a physical approach to trying to take down No. 1. The Cats went to the line 28 times and made 20, absorbing 22 Bearcat fouls, including one that triggered the technical.
Lyles, who had his second-career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, drove the lane and was fouled hard by Shaq Thomas. As the teams assembled at the foul line, there was some light jawing. Ellis, who battled Lyles all day and was booed regularly by Kentucky fans among the 21,760 in attendance at the KFC Yum! Center, was in the middle of it and eventually was bumped by Harrison for the technical call.
"He was just trying to be physical and stuff like that, but nobody let that get to them," Lyles said. "Kudos to him for going hard, but we were going at them hard too."
And even harder after the technical.
"Anytime some stuff like that happens, it doesn't matter who, you're going to automatically be juiced," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who had another of his poster-worthy dunks to key a game-turning first-half run. "Anytime somebody is talking trash to you you're going to go back at them."
Undeterred by yet another grind-it-out game and the back-and-forth that came with it, the Cats stayed alive and marched into the Sweet 16. In spite of being outrebounded for just the seventh time all season and the second time in the last 14 games, UK answered the bell.
"That was what everybody thought that to beat us you have to play more physical," Cauley-Stain said. "We're a physical team. We're all big and fast and strong. It's not like pushing us in the back on a rebound - we might not get it that time, but we know next time, OK, go ahead and push me in the back or anything, pushing and shoving. I don't know, it doesn't really bother me."
Nonetheless, the Cincinnati game still inspired talk that the game plan the Bearcats used might be the one a more dynamic offensive team could use to take down UK. Harrison isn't overly concerned.
"You gotta do what you gotta do, but I think we're a physical team as well," Harrison said. "Teams have tried to be physical with us all year and I think we're one of the more physical teams in the country and we can match anybody's intensity or aggressiveness or anything."
For a few brief moments, the Cats were able to celebrate what they did to advance past Cincinnati. It doing so, UK became the first team in NCAA history to start 36-0, besting the record set by the Wichita State team that saw its season ended a year ago in the round of 32 by Kentucky.
Still, the Cats were ready to move on quickly to thoughts of the Midwest Regional.
"We're not done yet," Lyles said. "It's a good accolade to have, but we have another game coming up on Thursday that we have to get ready for."