Tyler Ulis led UK with 12 points in a 63-62 loss to the Dominican Republic on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a stretch the likes of which Kentucky will never face again.
Six games. Eight days. Three opponents with rosters comprised of established professionals.
Playing the final leg of their Big Blue Bahamas Tour, the Wildcats finally showed the effects of what ESPN analyst Jay Bilas equated to playing two Southeastern Conference Tournaments back to back.
"We kind of died," Calipari said. "We didn't have it physically."
Through 31 minutes, UK successfully battled through that fatigue. But over the final 8:48, the Cats watched a 59-46 lead disappear little by little. Shots they made over their first five games in the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas didn't fall. Loose balls they grabbed before went to the Dominican Republic national team. In the end, the Dominicans avenged a Friday defeat and UK fell 63-62 after shooting 39.7 percent from the field and being outrebounded 38-34.
Jack Michael Martinez made the game-winning basket on a fall-away jumper with 2.6 seconds left. There was still time for last-second heroics like what Aaron Harrison delivered in the NCAA Tournament five months ago, but the Cats couldn't overcome their tired legs with the kind of execution they needed as Karl-Anthony Town's pass to Harrison was deflected away.
"You saw when we had to execute, we weren't able to," Calipari said. "When we had to get ball movement, we don't have enough in. When we needed out-of-bounds plays to score, we don't have anything in."
In other words, UK executed like a team that's only been together for a handful of August practices.
In the final minutes, John Robic -- filling in for Calipari, who watched from the stands for the fifth straight games -- scrapped the two-platoon system in favor of a lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee and Karl Towns. Absent was Alex Poythress, who was on the bench for most of the second half and played only 12 minutes total.
"He was exhausted," Calipari said. "I told him before the game, with the way he played yesterday, play five minutes today. Play 10 minutes today. Don't go out there and not play. Don't hurt your team. Just don't play. We've got other guys that want to play. So he was tired. He just pulled himself, which was fine."
Poythress, showcasing what Robic called a "rebuilt engine" yet again, expended the last of his energy in scoring all six of his points in the first half. He accounted for all but two points as the starting five were outscored 16-8 by the Dominicans in the first half.
Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Lee and Towns, however, provided a spark off the bench. After the Dominicans used a 14-3 run to claim a 24-17 lead, the Cats' so-called second unit turned UK's largest deficit of the week into a 36-29 halftime lead when Ulis buried a buzzer-beating runner.
Ulis scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half in leading the second group to a 28-13 margin in its first half minutes, playing the kind of pesky defense and sound offense that has Coach Cal thinking he has two very capable point guards.
"He was good," Calipari said. "He was good. You want him to make every play, but Andrew was terrific. Andrew's game yesterday was unbelievable. I mean, what he did yesterday - so you've got two guys."
And that's just at one position.
The Cats have tantalized their fans with depth on the Big Blue Bahamas Tour, sending waves of talented, athletic players at opponents. Sunday's result shed some additional light on what that depth means as players compete for roles and playing time.
"The lesson I told them that you walk away from (is) there's no birthright to be on that court," Calipari said. "You've got to play with energy and you've got to compete. If you don't, you're not playing. Either your group won't play as much or you won't play as much. It's just how it is.
"So there's no like, 'Well, today I'm not going to play and I'm still getting 20 minutes.' No. 'Well, I'm still getting--' No. You may get five minutes. And then you've got to bring it. This was the first game where we had guys with no competitive spirit, but it's easy to say (that with) six games in eight days. It was a tough run."
A tough run, but an undisputedly good one, even after it ended in defeat.
In planning the trip, Calipari had a different set of goals than most coaches who take teams on foreign tours. Television forced him to compress the schedule and placed some added stress on his team, but Calipari still got what he wanted.
"Most teams are using this for 10 days of practice," Calipari said. "Don't care who they play, don't care if they (win). Well, they don't care if they win or lose until they lose. Then it matters. But we needed it for more. I needed professional-level teams. I needed men. I needed experienced, physical guys that knew how to play."
Those grown men revealed plenty to Calipari about his team. He learned he has a well-conditioned group. He saw his highly touted freshman class is as advertised. But more than anything else, he found out his team is unselfish.
"I think they share the ball," Calipari said. "They've figured out how to share the ball more than any team I've had this early. Where most guys, you got ball stoppers trying to do their thing, trying to figure out who they are, versus move it, get it and make plays for each other. When we do that, we're real good. When we don't do that, we're like everybody else. So this team has picked it up pretty good."
UK got plenty done off the floor too.
Through three dominant performances, the Cats heard the hype and they began to grasp what it would mean. They listened as Bilas warned them against succumbing to the pressure pundits will place on them in picking apart roles and rotations. Most importantly, they were simply around each other.
"Well they got closer together," Calipari said. "There was great time that we could spend talking about different things that we're going to encounter this year, and we had the time to do it. There were some lessons and some different things. But they spent a lot of time together, so it was both spending time, vacation, but we played six games in eight days -- and against grown men, which was a great challenge for us."
With that experience in hand, the Cats have a much more solid grasp on the task facing them when they reconvene for practice this fall with a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles.
"This was a great run of games and experiences for these young people," Calipari said.
Tyler Ulis had 12 points, including the game-clinching layup off of a steal, in UK's win on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - The Big Blue Bahamas beatdowns ended in Kentucky's second game against Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, but as far as UK is concerned, everyone went home a winner Saturday.
The fans got a close contest in the Bahamas for the first time in five games, UK got its victory, and on a trip that's supposed to be about learning, John Calipari found out in a 75-71 nail-biting win that his team still has the same heart and the same late-game toughness that defined the Cats during their magical 2014 postseason run.
"We actually needed a test," said assistant coach Barry "Slice" Rohrssen. "This was good for us. We're learning a lot about our team. And maybe as important, they're learning a lot about themselves. This was a game that we needed."
Entrenched in a back-and-forth battle, freshman point guard Tyler Ulis sealed the Cats' fifth victory in five tries with a steal and layup with 1:08 left on the clock.
The diminutive point guard, who gave up at least a few inches and several pounds to Lionel Chalmers, hounded the Champagne point guard as he brought the ball with just over a minute left and Kentucky clinging to a 75-72 lead.
Chalmers appeared to get visibly frustrated when he crossed half court and no foul was called, but Ulis never backed off. Instead of relaxing and resetting, Ulis, like a defensive pest, got on Chalmers' backside, made him dribble to his right, and out went Chalmers' legs.
By the time Chalmers looked up from the court he had just slipped on, Ulis was halfway to the other basket, racing by himself to an easy layup and another UK victory. The play earned a standing ovation from Calipari in the bleachers.
"That's what he does," Rohrssen said. "He wears you down. He's got quick feet and a big heart."
Ulis finished the game with 12 points, three assists and two steals. The quickly emerging fan favorite -- who wasn't available after the game for an interview -- ensured the Cats will finish their study abroad trip in the Bahamas with an opportunity to go undefeated.
"He's going up against somebody that has a lot more games under his belt, but Tyler has a big heart and he made a big play," Rohrssen said.
Rohrssen, who made his head-coaching debut for UK as Calipari continued to watch and evaluate from the stands, made the decision to keep Ulis in the game when he went away from the two-platoon system with only a few minutes left and the Cats leading by just a few points. Ulis stayed in with Marcus Lee when the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson re-entered the game
The gut move by Rohrssen turned out to be the right one.
"I actually didn't want to get voted off the island tonight, you know?" said Rohrssen, who left Pittsburgh for Kentucky in May. "But we thought maybe we'll just go with some experience and some people that have been in some situations like that before. Again, we're finding out about ourselves. We thought that the substitutions that we did make gave us the right lineup and put us in the best position at the end of a close game."
UK found itself in a close game for the first time during its exhibition tour in Nassau, Bahamas. After winning its four previous games by an average of 23.8 points, including a 23-rout of this same Champagne team on Tuesday, the Cats could never pull away in this one.
They led by as many as nine points in the first half and by eight in the second, but the first-division professional team from France was up for the challenge on Saturday and appeared bent on getting a little retribution.
Champagne, which featured a monster game from former Syracuse star Daryl Watkins (20 points) and a solid supporting performance from former LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell (11 points, seven rebounds), actually led 44-43 at halftime. It was the first time UK had trailed at half during the exhibition tour and, quite frankly, the only time during the trip the Cats had fell behind outside the first few minutes of the game.
"When you play somebody again so quickly and the result that we had in the first game, you don't want their pride to beat any arrogance we may have. We needed to guard against that," Rohrssen said. "The team we played today, even though they had the same roster, was actually a different team. Everybody in the building saw that. They've had some more practices, they had a lot more offensive actions and sets than they ran the other day, and they came out with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, which you would expect men - grown men - to do."
Some of it, too, could be attributed to playing five games in seven days. The Cats were slow to get started, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes. They also allowed Champagne to shoot 73.1 percent in the first half because of eight turnovers and shaky transition defense.
"That is a lot of games in a very short period of time for us, but there's a reason why this trip is set up the way it is," Rohrssen said. "We knew before we got on that plane that we had six games to play, so there aren't going to be any excuses on our part. Excuses are just bricks that build a road to failure. ... We're not laying those bricks down right now."
UK appeared to be taking control of the game when it went on a 9-0 run midway through the first half, but Champagne clawed within two and never let Kentucky get any more than six points ahead the rest of the way as the two teams traded shot for shot.
Ultimately, Kentucky held on thanks to Ulis' big play.
"He stayed yard for yard, foot for foot, inch for inch and disrupted their offense and turned it into a turnover for them and an easy basket for him and a score that we needed at the end," Rohrssen said.
UK got big contributions down the stretch from Aaron Harrison (team-high 15 points), Andrew Harrison (11 points, seven assists) and Devin Booker (10 points). Booker, who entered the game just 6 for 23 from the floor on the trip, hit two of his three 3-point shots Saturday.
"Almost like (riding) a bicycle," Rohrssen said. "You get knocked off the bike and you just got to get back on that bike and start pedaling again. It was good to see him have some more success today, as we go forward and prepare for our final game of this trip tomorrow."
Cauley-Stein, Lyles close to returning
UK big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who have sat out the entire Bahamas trip while they recover from offseason procedures, are close to getting back on the court.
Cauley-Stein told reporters after Saturday's game that he's one CT scan away from rejoining competition.
"They say I'm cleared now, but they want to check the CT scan to see if everything healed up correctly and everything else," Cauley-Stein said. "But probably in the next week."
Lyles said he's about two weeks behind Cauley-Stein.
"Me as a competitor, it's very hard (not to play)," Lyles said. "But I'm just doing everything in my capability to get back out there as soon as possible. And it's just fun to see everybody coming together as a squad and just thinking that in a couple weeks I'll be out there with them and battle with them."
It doesn't take a medical expert or a physical trainer to figure out they're close to 100 percent.
Both players have been arriving at Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium before their teammates to get some workouts in with some of the coaching staff. Lyles was working on his jumper before Saturday's game and looked to have good lift, while Cauley-Stein has been throwing down dunks during his work with assistant coach Kenny Payne.
"They're probably chomping at the bit to get out there, and not just to be a part of this, but just to - as their career continues and grows -- they want to be out there," Rohrssen said. "And I'm sure there's some anxiousness there. But again, you have to do what's best for the athletes, and right now it's best for them to sit this dance out."
With how well the rest of the team has played so far, the one lingering question that will come from this week in the Bahamas is where Cauley-Stein and Lyles fit in to the two-platoon system.
"All I can do is play as hard as I can and do what I do best and take care of what I can control, and the outcome of that - Coach decides who gets minutes and who doesn't and who comes off the bench and who starts," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein thinks the two-platoon system can continue to work with he and Lyles in the mix.
"It's pretty genius to have, especially when you have three starting lineups you could put in," he said. "It doesn't matter who starts in it, because at the end of the day you're going to get the same amount of minutes and you're going to get the same amount of touches as everybody else. ... If we're going to have energy like that during the season, then you might as well keep it."
Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's win over the Dominican Republic on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - This was supposed to the best competition Kentucky would face in the Bahamas, a step up in talent and the stiffest test yet for the loaded Wildcats. After all, it was the Dominican Republic national team, ranked No. 26 in the FIBA world rankings (though those rankings are with NBA veteran Al Horford and current Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns).
But just like the first two opponents UK played in its previous three games on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, Kentucky took the Dominicans' best shot early in the first half Friday and then ran away with things in the second half.
Platoon after platoon, player after player, wave after wave, the Cats just wore out the professionals and broke them down.
When it was all said and done, despite an entertaining and back-and-forth first 15 minutes and a late comeback attempt, UK wiped another opponent off the floor Friday at the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas.
Former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who was on the other end of Friday's 83-71 Kentucky win as the Dominican Republic national team head coach, was impressed at how far along his former team is.
"They've kept it going from how we ended (last) year," Antigua said. "Obviously the chemistry, the knowing one another, knowing the expectation from the coaches, all those things early on in a season ... they already have. They're on step five instead of step one or two, which is what we had to (start with) the past few years."
For the fourth game in the Bahamas, UK combated professional experience with an overwhelming amount of talent, depth, dunks and Alex Poythress.
The junior forward continued his best string as a college player with arguably his best game yet. In just 20 minutes of action, he posted a game-high-tying 20 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block.
On a team that's shined from top to bottom, he's shined the brightest.
"That is the reason I came back: I want to prove I'm still one of the best," Poythress said. "I'm just trying to show the world."
Poythress wasted little time in making an impact Friday, scoring six points in the opening five minutes as the Cats took a 14-9 lead. His bucket at the 8:50 mark ignited a 7-0 UK run, but the Dominicans, as expected with a talent-loaded roster that features a much-improved Eloy Vargas, NBA veteran Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez, hung around early.
When Sosa cut UK's lead to 34-30 on a steal and a layup with 6:20 left in the first half, it appeared everyone was in for the first close game of the week. But Poythress stepped up again.
The catalyst of a 13-6 run at the end of the half, Poythress threw down a dunk and followed it with a 3-pointer to give the Cats a little halftime separation.
"What's different is just his whole mindset," teammate Dakari Johnson said of Poythress. "He's more in attack mode. Whenever he gets it he's looking to attack more and also he's just playing to his strength. He's just increasing on that."
Dakari Johnson was in attack mode as well on Friday.
The Dominicans elected not to double team the 255-pound big man to start the game, and they paid for it dearly. Though he's leaner this season, Johnson still threw his weight around Friday, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds by the first media timeout.
"I felt like Dakari set the tone," said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the second time in three games as John Calipari evaluated from the stands. "I thought he did a good job in the post. I thought he played well down there. He's tough to deal with, and if you're not going to trap him, I mean, he's really hard to deal with."
Johnson slowed down as the game wore on, but he still ended up with 10 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double of the trip. He looks slimmer, more athletic and poised to have a big sophomore campaign.
"It's just been great," Johnson said of the trip so far. "Just the balance and the overall team, everybody contributing and everybody doing their job and playing their roles, it's been really fun for all of us."
Johnson said he's been motivated to step his game up by the superb play of freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. With those two, Marcus Lee and the eventual additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, UK looks to have the most formidable front line in college basketball.
"We've got so many different, legitimate players that it's very difficult to find out, who are you going to take away?" Payne said.
It was Lee's turn to contribute to start the second half.
The dunking specialist started the half with two straight slams, one of which he caught on a lob, cocked back with his right hand and then flushed in the basket with authority. He finished the game with eight points, all on dunks, and his last 10 field goals over the last two games have all been slams.
"His energy is what is important for us," Payne said. "We need his energy. He's an energetic player. That's his personality and that's what he brings to the table."
Lee's back-to-back dunks sparked a 9-0 run to start the second half, all but putting the game out of reach for the Dominicans.
"The first five minutes of the second half, which they've done in every one of their other games, they get that separation," Antigua said. "Then you're swimming upstream after that."
The Dominicans fought upstream in the second half and nearly made a game out of it with an 8-0 run. They got as close as 12 several times with time remaining and then 10 in the final few seconds, but they could never get it back to single digits.
"We did not dictate the pace of the game defensively and they outrebounded us," Payne said. "They only had two bigs, so that says a lot right there. We've been outrebounding teams by 20-plus. ... Some of this could have been attributed to the two days off. They were maybe a bit rusty, but at the end of the day we got the W. They played OK, not great."
And yet, UK won by double digits, beating another professional team - its best competition yet - by double digits. That has to say something.
"I think it says a lot when you're playing grown men opposed to other college kids," Payne said. "The fact that that team was full of NBA players and European players says a lot."