Winning is woven into the culture of the Kentucky cheerleading team. So when the Wildcats don't reach their goal - a national championship - disappointment is inevitable.
That was the case on Sunday evening, as UK fell short in its bid for an unprecedented 21st national championship.
"I know we're better than that, but today just wasn't our day," head coach Jomo Thompson said. "Hats off to the University of Alabama for taking that title."
Kentucky finished third at the UCA/UDA National Championships in Orlando, Fla., behind Alabama and second-place UCF. Thompson cited execution as the reason why the Cats couldn't bring home their 16th championship since 1995 and second in a row, but a difficult routine still kept UK in the top three.
"The competition's tough, but I always tell the kids we're our own competition," Thompson said. "We compete against the UK teams in the past before and we just didn't live up to that standard today."
UK will have to wait a year to reclaim its spot atop the world of college cheerleading, but the Cats have a history of responding when they don't win the title. Each of the four times the cheerleading team has been beaten out for the championship since 1995, UK has won the title the following year.
"We definitely have to come back stronger," Thompson said. "That starts with getting some good recruits in here and using this lesson that we learned today and kind of letting it burn in our bellies and just using it as fuel for next year, to re-motivate us."
The Kentucky dance team, which also competed at nationals this weekend, will have plenty of motivation heading into next year as well having turned in one of its best performances ever. The Cats came in third in the Hip Hop competition behind only Cincinnati and UNLV.
"I could not be more proud of these young ladies," head coach Dawn Walters said. "This is such a positive and hard-working group of girls. Even after one-third of the team got the flu two days before we left, they continued to support each other and stay focused on our goal. I'm so excited that their hard work was rewarded. It's been our goal to make top three and I am so proud."
The finish marks an improvement of two places from 2014.
UK Athletics congratulates both the cheer and dance teams for their achievements this weekend!
Devin Booker scored 13 points and hit 3-of-6 from 3-point range in a 70-48 win at Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Armed with a handful of players who bypassed chances to enter the NBA Draft, this was set to be the season Kentucky relied on veterans to get the job done on the road.
Two precocious freshmen, however, have decided they want in on the action.
Three away games into their UK careers, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are having little trouble coping with life on the road.
"It shows their character," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It shows how much fight and will power they have to win the game. It starts in the gym. They're the two dudes that stay in after, and they're there first. They get their shots up before and after practice, and it starts there for real."
Booker and Ulis combined for 24 points as No. 1 UK ran its record to 17-0 (4-0 Southeastern Conference) with a dominant 70-48 win at Alabama (12-5, 2-2 SEC). They shot 7 of 12 from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range as the Wildcats decimated a solid Crimson Tide defense to the tune of 1.25 points per possession and had home fans heading to the exits well before the final buzzer sounded.
This is no new phenomenon either. In three road games - wins at Louisville, Texas A&M and of course Alabama - Booker is averaging 13.7 points on 12-of-23 shooting, while Ulis is averaging 9.3 points and hit a clutch 3 in that double-overtime thriller at A&M.
"Each game that goes by they're building their confidence," Calipari said.
It's scary to think Booker could get much more confident, particularly when it comes to his outside shot.
"Super impressive, especially for a freshman and especially games like this," said Cauley-Stein, who had nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's second straight blowout win. "The crowd's into you, they're bad-mouthing you, they're doing stuff, so to be able to shoot like that is remarkable to me."
The sweet-shooting 6-foot-6 guard, who led a balanced effort with 13 points, has made 20 of his last 28 attempts over UK's last seven games. On the season, he's now shooting 34 of 67 (50.7 percent) from deep, rending his 1-of-11 start through three games a distant memory.
"It's like I'm shooting into the ocean now," Booker said. "It's really coming easy for me. At the beginning of the year I started out in slumps and I kept telling everybody, 'Shooters keep shooting.' That's what I did, and now it's falling."
Though they keep on falling, Booker refuses to force his shots.
"I'm shooting shots that the team needs," Booker said. "Like, for instance, Dakari Johnson was working real well today. So I was throwing it in to him every time, and he was making easy layups for us. And that opened up the 3 for us."
Booker and the Cats went to Johnson when it counted, as Alabama cut an 18-point deficit to nine with 13:14 left before Johnson drew foul, hit a free throw and bullied his way to a layup to spark a decisive 16-2 run. It should come as no surprise that Ulis hit a pair of 3s during the run and Booker another.
"I thought the game was won by Dakari today though," Calipari said of his 7-foot sophomore, who joined Booker in Ulis in double figures with 11 points. "The game was touch and go, and then Dakari just went basket, basket, basket, and the team went crazy because they knew what he was doing."
For a couple games to start SEC play, sharing in and celebrating teammates' success in that way went by the wayside. But with the return of the platoons, that's come back as well.
"Instead of tolerating each other they're celebrating each other," Calipari said. "So it's good. We're a good team. I got players."
Calipari hopeful for Hawkins' return on Tuesday
After Dominique Hawkins was impressive after Coach Cal inserted him into the starting lineup on Tuesday, the sophomore guard was forced to miss Saturday's game after undergoing a medical procedure.
Hawkins traveled with the team to Tuscaloosa, Ala., but was unable to participate in shootaround and missed the game. Calipari hopes Hawkins will play when UK hosts Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.
The freshman quartet of Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz makes up Tim Garrison's first class fully his own.
Recruiting in gymnastics starts so early that Garrison has waited until the fourth year of his Kentucky tenure for the moment they arrived on campus.
That means they are carrying the weight of some serious expectations.
"There is a little bit of pressure on us, but we all know we have the confidence, the talent in general and we go great together, the four of us," Rechenmacher said.
It's a good thing they do, otherwise this group of freshmen would surely not be able to contribute as much as they're being asked so soon.
Two meets into UK's season, the four newcomers have been counted on for seven routines. The first time around in a win at Washington, Garrison said they grew out of being freshmen before the meet was over. In their second meet on Excite Night, they performed more like seasoned veterans.
"Going through the preseason, I was fairly sure they were going to contribute and contribute in a big way," Garrison said. "To this point in the season, it's really turned out to be so."
Counting scores on six of the seven routines performed by freshmen, No. 13 UK came in second in Memorial Coliseum with a score of 195.600, beating Arizona State and falling short of No. 2 LSU's 196.600.
"I guess taking second to No. 2 team in the country is some consolation, but not much," Garrison said. "It still doesn't feel good to not win, but a 195.6 at this point in the season considering the fact that we're based solely on score for our rankings, I guess we'll take it for now."
The score represented a marked improvement from the season opener and the highest so early in the season in Garrison's time in Lexington. The freshmen had a lot to do with it.
On vault, Furuyama and Waltz posted scores of 9.800 and 9.850, respectively, to close out a strong performance on the apparatus. On bars, Carlisle and Waltz went 9.800 and 9.875 before Rechenmacher turned in a 9.850 as the fifth of UK's six performers.
"She's almost the anchor on bars right now," Garrison said. "That's pretty good. That's pretty solid for a freshman."
Rechenmacher wouldn't go as big on beam, the second of her two events, but her score was even more important.
After redshirt junior Alexis Gross tallied a score of 9.050, Rechenmacher stepped up with no margin for error in the fifth spot in UK's lineup. Unfazed, she managed a 9.725 to sustain the momentum the Cats built on vault and bars.
"I just knew I had the confidence in myself," Rechenmacher said. "I've been doing great in the gym this week and I knew I just had to do it for Lex. She was a little upset with herself that she fell and I understand that, but I just wanted to make it for her and help the team."
It's perhaps the most impressive thing about this freshman class that its members are already placing team before self. Along those lines, they're setting some ambitious goals.
"Hopefully we have the power to get this team to nationals," Garrison said. "That's our goal and I think we definitely have it. We're all so talented and just improving day in and day out in the gym. I think we can take this team pretty far."
That's exactly why Garrison recruited them.
"I'm seeing a lot of fight," Garrison said. "I'm seeing a lot of toughness. I'm seeing a lot of what I want to see from our freshman class and everybody else on the team, also. It's a team effort, what we're doing right now, and I think there's a lot of great things in store for us this year."
At his introductory press conference, the Kentucky offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach was asked why he believes he will succeed in his new role in the nation's toughest conference. His answer was as simple as it was quick.
"Because I think I can be successful anywhere," Dawson said.
Elsewhere in the nearly 30 minutes he spent with assembled media, Dawson spoke about his belief in Mark Stoops and the upward trajectory of the UK program, but his instant answer reflects that confidence, which also happens to be justified.
At his previous stop, West Virginia, Dawson joined with head coach Dana Holgorsen to lead offenses that ranked among the nation's best attacks over the last three seasons. Before that, he helped resurrect lagging programs at Stephen F. Austin and Millsaps.
"The last time I checked, everybody can put 11 players on the field, right?" Dawson said. "And it's not like we didn't play anybody in y'all's league the past four years. We did. So, you know, I think you can be successful anywhere if you do it the right way."
Dawson got his break into coaching with Hal Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana, where Mumme was famously hard on Dawson. It was under Mumme, the Air Raid innovator who first popularized the fast-paced, pass-oriented system at Kentucky in the late 1990s, that Dawson developed his concept of what doing it the right way means.
"The problem that a lot coaches make is they change too much," Dawson said. "So our overall way we're going to practice and lay it out has been consistent over the years, and that's one thing that's been consistent from offense from 15 years down, the way we practice and the way we install.
"I just think you gotta program kids a certain way, and you gotta hold them accountable to it. Attention to detail is huge. So the moment you let one little thing slip, then that becomes two."
Dawson might not be one for change, but that doesn't mean he's not willing to adapt.
At Stephen F. Austin, Dawson relied heavily on the pass, with barely a third of the Lumberjacks' plays being runs. By contrast, West Virginia had more rushes (563) than passes (534) in 2014.
"We made a concerted effort to get physical and be able to run the ball more efficient, not that we're sitting there adding 100 more run plays into the offense," Dawson said. "We still have those run plays, but it's simply the fact that we're calling them a little more, just turning and handing it a little more."
If it hadn't been for that tweak in approach, Stoops surely would not have brought Dawson on as Neal Brown's replacement in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
"I think one thing that he was excited about was we were physical, we had to the ability to be physical," Dawson said. "So that evolution fired him up."
Stoops and Dawson discussed that philosophy first over the phone and eventually in a face-to-face meeting that lasted two-plus hours. While Stoops was sold on Dawson's commitment to physicality in his Air Raid attack, Dawson saw the opportunity to run his own offensive show and jumped. Dawson played in an important role in all facets of West Virginia's offensive operation, but Holgorsen maintained final say.
"Working for Coach Stoops, being a defensive head coach, obviously the dynamics of me and his relationship is going to be different than the dynamics of me and Coach Holgorsen's relationship," Dawson said. "So being back on the field -- I wasn't in the press box really until West Virginia -- so being back on the field, having that flow of the game was extremely important to me and really the reason why I took it."
After Stoops and Dawson's in-person meeting, it only took a couple days to seal the deal. And if there was any lingering doubt about his commitment to his new job, witness how Dawson, his wife and his infant daughter handled their move to Lexington.
On Dec. 27, West Virginia lost a 45-37 shootout to Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dawson and his wife flew into Pittsburgh with the team around 11 p.m. and immediately made the drive to Lexington. Arriving in the wee hours of the morning, the Dawsons needed to secure health insurance and find a house in short order.
"Both things we got done within about four hours," Dawson said. "I promise you this: The whole family will be here a couple days after signing day. We'll be ready to go. I'm not messing around with that."
Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have always been the future of UK Hoops.
That future has arrived sooner than expected.
A season-ending injury to Janee Thompson on Sunday left the two sophomores with no choice but to step up into featured roles. The tears Epps and Harper cried for their teammate weren't even dry when they realized it.
"We both knew it was on as soon as Janee got took off on that stretcher," Epps said. "We both knew right there mentally that it was on, that we have to step up now. There's no more excuses."
Epps would have to shift from her customary jack-of-all-trades role over to being UK's permanent point guard. Harper would have to go from being a part-time standout to a full-time star for No. 10/11 Kentucky (15-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) to sustain its strong start.
One game in - a hard-fought 62-56 win over Florida (9-9, 1-4 SEC) - Epps and Harper are handling themselves just fine.
"I think tonight we both did great things on the offensive end," Epps said. "We still struggle on the defensive end with ball watching, which I'm sure we'll see tomorrow in practice for film, but we just have to step up on both ends because, like I said, it's all for Janee."
The Cats repeated their "play for Janee" mantra all night on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum, from the moment Thompson took the floor on crutches alongside head coach Matthew Mitchell on. The junior received a loud ovation from the crowd of 5,134 and watched from a few feet behind the UK bench.
With Thompson so close, Epps found herself wanting to ask advice of the player she's replacing. She'd have to settle for the occasional knowing look.
"There was times where I would look up and look at her," Epps said. "She would smile at me so I'm like, 'I'm doing all right.' "
All right for Epps meant 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and two turnovers. After an uneven first half, Epps was aggressive throughout the second stanza in scoring 14 points, following advice given by her head coach when he called her back for some final private words in the halftime locker room.
"He always tells me there's not too many people that can guard me," Epps said, "and I think I just really have to start believing that because when I get my feet in the paint that's creating shots for me, that's creating opportunities for my teammates and I just think I have to start believing in myself more."
Epps showed no shortage of self-belief in the final minutes, burying six clutch free throws in as many attempts over the final 2:15 to salt away the win. Still, Mitchell will be demanding more from her as she settles into her new role.
"We wouldn't have won the game without her," Mitchell said. "She just needs reps. I really believe this: I believe she can be one of the best point guards in this league. I think she can be one of the best point guards in the country, but she needs reps."
Harper, on other hand, remains in a familiar role on the wing, but she can no longer afford to show only flashes of her talent. The injury to Thompson, who Harper has known and played with since fifth grade, might have hit her harder than anyone, but Harper still has to step up.
In her 32 minutes against Florida, Harper did just that. She had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds, as well a career-high six steals.
"She's developed so much," Mitchell said. "Last year she didn't get on the floor because she couldn't defend and now she's out there the whole game and just on a torrid steals pace."
Harper has a team-best 40 steals, including 20 over her last six games. She plans to keep her improvement on defense and offensive emergence going in honor of her friend and teammate.
"Now it's just all about playing for her because I know that she would want the best for us," Harper said. "I think about her all the time, I think about her every day and think she's my motivation to work harder in practice, do the little things, get in the gym extra and I think that's going to be contagious to the rest of the team."
Dakari Johnson had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's 86-37 win over Missouri on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Dakari Johnson started his season with a bang.
He scored in double figures in six of his first eight games, showing off a leaner physique and improved conditioning.
He flew up and down the floor, played through contact inside and rarely took the path of least resistance, but fell into a trap soon after.
"It's hard," John Calipari said. "It's hard to play the right way. You try to go back to see if I can do it that other way. It's much easier."
Johnson, of course, would learn the easier way just doesn't work.
"And then what happens is, your confidence gets down," Calipari said.
His production suffered as well, especially in a two-point, four-turnover outing at Louisville. The 7-foot Johnson routinely yielded the advantage his size gives him by bringing the ball low and shooting off balance then and in games soon after and the difference was plain to see.
That version of Johnson, however, was long gone on Tuesday against Missouri.
"(I) just came out trying to be aggressive, just try to bring energy to the game (and) try to bring my shot up quicker," Johnson said.
Johnson's statistics - eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds - didn't look drastically different, but everything else about him did. He was running the floor, kept the ball high and easily dealt with double teams, mirroring the boost of energy UK got as a team as the 10-man platoon system returned.
The way Johnson played was hardly surprising to Coach Cal after watching him in the days prior.
"He's just better in practice," Calipari said. "I told him - you could almost watch guys in practice and say, 'If he plays like that, watch what happens.' But it's hard. It's hard to run really hard every time, outrun your guy."
Johnson has proven time and time again he's not afraid of a challenge, most notably this past offseason. Aware he needed to shed weight to take the next step in his game, Johnson changed his diet and took on an aggressive workout routine and he hasn't stopped since.
"I've been working on my body all summer so I can sustain that throughout the season, just keep on staying in the same diet, the same regimen that I've been staying on," Johnson said.
The results, save for that holiday swoon, have been plain to see.
"Dakari's playing great," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great player. He's changed so much from last year. I've never seen someone change as much as he has over a year. He just works so hard and I'm really proud of him and happy for him."
Set for a trip to Alabama, top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will need Johnson to keep it up. The Crimson Tide (12-4, 2-1 SEC) is unbeaten in 10 home games this season and its only losses have come to No. 11/13 Iowa State, Xavier, No. 13/15 Wichita State and a much-improved South Carolina team on Tuesday.
"I know they're a big, athletic team that's a good defensive team as well and really have to play hard against them," Aaron Harrison said. "They play really hard."
Calipari anticipates Alabama will trap Johnson and his fellow post players.
"They have to," Calipari said. "They're not gonna surrender. I keep coming back to, 'Why are they playing like this and hard?' They're not surrendering. So they body-to-body him and they just try to lay on him."
By this point, Johnson is accustomed to that, and he's happy to create openings for his teammates on the perimeter.
"It's expected," Johnson said. "We're used to teams doubling down and going on the inside. As long as we're shooting it well that's going to open it up."
Tim Garrison thinks of everything he can to simulate a meet-like atmosphere in practice.
He turns up the pressure on his gymnasts as much as possible, but his hands are still tied. When it comes down to it, duplicating the feeling of competing when it counts just isn't possible.
"There's only so much you can do, so actually getting out there and competing and seeing what kind of team we have was a very good thing," Garrison said.
That first look at his team in competition came on Monday, as the Wildcats traveled all the way to Seattle for a season-opening meet against No. 24 Washington. UK came on top, 194.975-194.325, with a score good enough to bump its ranking nine spots to No. 13 entering Friday's home-opening Excite Night meet against LSU and Arizona State.
Garrison called it a "decent opening day," saying plenty of small mistakes and even a few large ones will need to be addressed. But most importantly, the Cats showed themselves to be a team capable of overcoming adversity.
"When we made a mistake that was a large mistake resulting in a fall, the very next competitor was able to step up and actually hit their routine," Garrison said. "So I think that's good. I think that speaks to the toughness of our kids which is something that we're proud of."
An example of that toughness was Alexis Gross, the redshirt junior who missed all of last season due to injury. After Sara Shipley fell twice on beam, UK's final event, Gross needed to post a score to steady the Cats and preserve a slim lead. She did just that with a 9.725. Garrison also cited senior Kayla Hartley as being in "mid-season form."
From veterans like Gross and Hartley, that kind of effort is expected. From freshmen in their first college meet, not so much.
UK relied on its four true freshmen - Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz - for six routines on Monday. They weren't perfect, but they weren't afraid either, not as the night went on.
"The way I put it, I think they grew up in front of our eyes," Garrison said. "I think on the first event they were freshmen. They were freshmen being freshmen. I think by the time they competed their second events they had already settled down and kind of gotten into the rhythm of the competition, which is something that we were looking to see."
The freshmen will get more experience under their belt in Memorial Coliseum for Excite Night, the meet that annually kicks off the home season for UK. A pair of strong teams, including the second-ranked Tigers, will be there, making for an event worth seeing.
"I'm expecting a big crowd, that's for sure," Garrison said.
Garrison can't promise anything about the way the Cats will perform, but the way they handled their first meet is a good sign. Regardless, he expects it to be the start of a season to remember.
"As far as I'm concerned, this team is limitless in our potential," Garrison said. "I think we're going to break a lot of records this year."
It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.
In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.
"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.
It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.
"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."
Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.
"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."
Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.
"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.
"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."
But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.
"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."
To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.
"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."
The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.
"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."
Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.
"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."
Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.
The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.
"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.
"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."
Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari was cagey speaking to the media on Monday.
He mentioned a "great" team meeting. He asked rhetorical questions about what Kentucky needed to do to regain the swagger the Wildcats had seemingly lost in a pair of overtime wins to open Southeastern Conference play, questions to which he seemed to think he knew the answers. There was something he was choosing not to say.
On Tuesday night, when starting lineups were posted before UK's matchup with Missouri and Dominique Hawkins' No. 25 appeared, everyone found out what he was withholding.
The platoons, they were coming back.
"Well, I had planned on it, I just didn't tell you guys," Calipari said. "I don't tell you guys everything."
Following Alex Poythress' season-ending injury, Coach Cal cut his rotation to nine players, abandoning the strict 10-man platoon system that had drawn countless headlines and propelled UK to a hot start. The Cats kept winning after the move, but in increasingly unconvincing and therefore uncharacteristic fashion, eventually prompting Calipari to declare "enough is enough."
Perhaps everyone should have known then what he was about to do. Maybe everyone should have known how top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 SEC) would respond, too. The dominant form that had inspired talk of a possible unbeaten run through SEC play, it was back with the platoons in an 86-37 win over Missouri (7-9, 1-2 SEC).
"We just needed to get back to what we were," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. "We looked ourselves in the mirror and said we aren't playing the way we normally play. We did that and did a great job with that tonight."
As it always has for this team, that started on defense.
UK overwhelmed the visitors, using a 20-2 first-half run to turn a 12-10 lead into a far bigger one that continued to balloon with every missed Missouri shot. The Tigers shot just 27.1 percent and managed only 0.578 points per possession. In the process, UK allowed the fewest points scored by an SEC opponent since Mississippi State managed 36 in 1987 and rolled up the biggest blowout of a conference foe since a 106-44 shellacking of Vanderbilt in 2003.
"I thought our defensive intensity because of the platoons was back to where it was," Calipari said, later comparing his team to a "buzz saw" the likes of which Kansas and UCLA had experienced in November and December, respectively.
The player who set the tone wasn't even a lock to be on the floor.
Calipari, reflecting on Saturday's double-overtime win at Texas A&M, decided to go back to the platoons. With that out of the way, his next choice was between Hawkins and Derek Willis, gifted yet very different players who have ridden the bench in recent weeks.
Making his judgment based on performance in practice, Calipari told Hawkins on Sunday he would be making the third start of his career.
"Coach, he told us he wants to get back to the Blue and White platoon," said Hawkins, who later revealed he had a sleepless night on Monday thinking about the game. "He told me I was going to be on the Blue one and he just wanted high energy from me and me to be aggressive on offense."
For Hawkins, high energy is pretty much a given.
He was dogged in his 20 minutes, chasing and making life on the Rupp Arena court generally miserable for Missouri's Keith Shamburger with his ball pressure.
"He brings so much energy and so much athleticism to the game," said Aaron Harrison, who bounced back from an off game at A&M with 16 points and five made 3s in seven tries. "And we're all excited for him when he plays well. We're all proud of him. I've seen him get a lot better over these past couple years and I'm proud of him."
Hawkins, true to his humble nature, credited that improvement to his teammates.
"When I'm playing another team's point guard, I feel like it's easier for me to contain them because Tyler (Ulis), he's so quick, he helps me out, like trying to stay in front of a quick guy," Hawkins said. "Andrew (Harrison), he's so big, he's helping me (learn) how to stand up when they get me in the paint and be strong and body them up."
On the other end of the floor, Hawkins displayed the aggressiveness Coach Cal asked of him. He missed all three of his 3-point tries, but took each confidently and buried a pair of shots inside the arc to post six points.
"We know Dom can play," Aaron Harrison said. "He's very capable and he's a really talented basketball player and he showed it out there tonight."
In spite of that talent, Hawkins hadn't played a minute since Dec. 20 against UCLA, when the Cats last blitzed an opponent as they did Missouri. That hasn't been easy on the 2013 Kentucky Mr. Basketball, but he was undeterred.
"It's really hard to stay patient, but with this team you definitely know if you stay patient and get the opportunity you have to go out and ball," Hawkins said. "I was patient enough and Coach finally gave me some time to play and I was able to do well."
Hawkins said he felt his play had earned him the chance to make another start when the Cats hit the road to face a tough Alabama team on Saturday, but he was quick to point out the decision is out of his hands.
That call, of course, belongs to Coach Cal, who was back to his coy, unrevealing self in discussing it.
"I don't know if I'll do it next game," Calipari said. "I may not."
When the Detroit Lions lost on Wild Card Weekend, and the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos followed suit the week after, the playoff dreams of former Kentucky players Larry Warford and Jacob Tamme (as well as injured standouts Garry Williams and Danny Trevathan) were vanquished. Though UK alumnus Chris Matthews signed with the Seattle Seahawks late in the regular season, Randall Cobb and Tim Masthay of the Green Bay Packers are the only starting former Wildcats with Super Bowl XLIX hopes still alive. The Packers will travel to Seattle to face the defending champions in Sunday's NFC Championship at 3:05 p.m. ET on Fox.
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4) Cobb caught a game-high eight passes in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys. The former second round pick finished with 116 yards, including a 31-yard haul late in the first half and a heroic reception off a deflected pass to seal the victory.