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Willie Cauley-Stein scored 18 points in UK's SEC Tournament semifinal win over Auburn. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein scored 18 points in UK's SEC Tournament semifinal win over Auburn. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Kentucky junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein keeps it real.

That's why when he swats an opponent's shot away he'll give a stare and a face that will let everyone know about it just as much as the rejection.

"It energizes the whole team," freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. "It's his trademark."

"It's not even a stare down, it's more of just a look like, 'What are you thinking? What are you doing?' " Cauley-Stein said.

Hey, at least he's being honest.

Whether you want to call it a stare or a look is semantics at this point. When Cauley-Stein does it, it's a very good thing for the Cats (33-0). On Saturday in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, that look came back again as the Cats cruised to a 91-67 victory.

"Willie was the best version of himself," UK head coach John Calipari said. "That's what we're striving for. Hard to do that every night out. But he has that ability. It's just hard. I don't want him to feel there's an expectation he has to be that good every night, but strive to be that good."

Midway through the second half, freshman guard Devin Booker found Cauley-Stein in transition for a gorgeous lob dunk to put the Cats up by 26. What followed was both a scream of excitement and a stare that could pierce the thickest of skins.

The referee talked to Cauley-Stein afterward, but not so much about the stare as to let him know what he would have done had he been the player. After a skirmish broke out Friday between Auburn and LSU and words were exchanged in the first half between 5-foot-9 Tyler Ulis and 7-2 Trayvon Reed, he didn't want this to escalate.

"He was like making sure I was going to stay safe because we were up by 20 and he was like, 'If you were staring me down I'd get mad too,' " Cauley-Stein said about his conversation with the official.

Cauley-Stein, who wore an appropriate gray T-shirt after the game that read "You run, I fly," says the stare comes in the flow of the game and none of it is premeditated, but if intimidates his opponent, well, that works too.

"I never looked at it like it's intimidating," Cauley-Stein said. "That's just what I'm thinking is 'What is that dude thinking?' "

A similar question perhaps could be asked to those who have pegged Cauley-Stein as a one-dimensional player, as the 7-foot John R. Wooden Award finalist scored a team-high 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked three shots and dished out two assists against the Tigers.

It was the first time Cauley-Stein reached double figures offensively since scoring 14 points on Valentine's Day against South Carolina, and his second highest scoring output of the year. While he was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is one of the favorites to take home national defensive player of the year honors, Cauley-Stein said it "drives me nuts" when he's described as a defender alone.

"I'm a ballplayer," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not just a defensive player. I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."

He did say though that his offensive performance against Auburn stemmed from his prowess on defense. Cauley-Stein said it was a mindset he had at the beginning of the year that he carried over to the blue-clad Bridgestone Arena, saying "if offense happens, then it happens."

Against Auburn, the junior hit jump shots and floaters. He made post moves, grabbed rebounds for put-back dunks, and of course also skied for lob dunks.

"When he sees a lot of those shots go in, it's just--he gets a lot of confidence like I said and he just keeps going and we keep feeding him," Ulis said. "When he gets it going, it's hard to stop him."

It also makes it really hard to stop everyone else on Kentucky. When a team is fortunate enough to have as many scoring options as the Wildcats do, what are opponents supposed to do when an athletic, quick 7-footer then begins to get in a groove offensively?

"Opens everybody else up," Cauley-Stein said about the repercussions if he gets in an offensive groove. "Then they have to play you. A lot of our plays most of the time they just sag off and play the post. If you're hitting shots and you're scoring and getting to the free-throw line they have to play you, especially if you're in attack mode. Then you're just going to get layups and dunks. It just opens up everybody else."

Against the Tigers, Kentucky shot 56.3 percent from the field, its 10th time this season making at least half of its shots. The Cats also hit 7-of-14 3-point attempts and five players reached double figures as the Cats scored 1.34 points per possession.

As Kentucky now enters its fifth SEC Tournament championship game in the last six years, it does so with a singular focus: cut down some nets and raise some hardware. If it is to do that Sunday against a top-25 ranked Arkansas team, Cauley-Stein and both his offensive and defensive game will likely play a large role.

"Willie was what you saw today," Coach Cal said. "That's Willie when you say, Wow."

Willie Cauley-Stein and Andrew Harrison

Towns, Aaron Harrison, Booker, Ulis

Alex Poythress cheers on his teammates during UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress cheers on his teammates during UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Alex Poythress has had a front-row seat for one of the greatest rides in college basketball history.

Sitting on the bench and traveling with the team as Kentucky has rolled unbeaten through the 2014-15 season, Poythress has been there every step of the way. It's a spot most UK fans would love to be in.

For Poythress - whose season was cut short in early December by a torn ACL - it hasn't been easy. Every day is a reminder that he's supposed to be on the floor.

"Oh, I miss it a lot," Poythress said after watching UK dispatch Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, 64-49. "I'd give the world to still be playing."

But given his current situation - rehabbing from reconstructive surgery - he's thankful the top-ranked Wildcats still count him as a teammate.

"I don't feel like I've been left behind," Poythress said. "I'm still a part of the team, still come to all the meetings, activities, all the stuff to do. Whenever I'm not doing my rehab, I'm around the team still."

The junior forward, unable to play or practice, has thrown himself into his rehab. When he's not in class or with his teammates, Poythress can probably be found doing some kind of work to facilitate the healing process, as much as four hours a day.

"Every day I'm doing something about my knee," said Poythress, who called rehab harder than basketball. "There's no days off. I'm just trying to stretch my knee as much as I can."

To break up scar tissue left from surgery, Poythress has to continually bend and stretch his knee. Talking about the pain, he said he "wouldn't wish it on anybody."

"It makes you want to cry," Poythress said. "But you gotta get through it."

And with the help of his teammates and family, he is.

"It feels good because I was at points after the surgery the first couple days when I couldn't get out of bed by myself," Poythress said. "I couldn't move my leg. I had to have somebody help me out of my bed, move my leg and stuff like that. So moving around well now, it's real good for me."

Poythress moves better each day and no longer needs the crutches he used when he made his first public appearance post-injury at UK's win over North Carolina. He received a standing ovation upon taking the court for that game and his teammates wore warmup shirts honoring him. That support hasn't died down.

"It's just a great feeling that my teammates and the fans, they all care about me still," Poythress said.

The fans, as much as they care about him, are eager to find out what Poythress might do following the season. Set to graduate in May, he has a decision ahead of him about whether to return to Lexington or pursue a professional career.

"I haven't even thought about that yet," Poythress said. "Like I said earlier, I'm just focused on this season we got so far."

Playing or not, he has plenty to focus on.

Cats closing out

Thirty-two games into the best unbeaten start in school history, the Cats have shown an uncanny ability to find another gear in crunch time.

When they're down late - as they were against Georgia and LSU - they clamp down on defense and find ways to win.

When they're locked in a close game - as they have been twice in the last seven days against Florida - they turn in back-breaking runs.

"They have a will to win," Calipari said.

That will to win manifested itself against the Gators with a 14-2 run that turned a slim five-point lead with less than eight minutes left into a comfortable 64-49 victory. Similarly, UK outscored Florida 25-11 over the final 10:28 of a win over the Gators in the regular-season finale.

"We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play," Calipari said. "To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."

'We need this tournament'

One of the few things Karl-Anthony Towns is better at than piling up double-doubles - he had his seventh on Friday - is turning a phrase.

"One thing I know is that we may not need to win this tournament," Towns said, "but we need this tournament."

After overcoming Florida for the third time in five weeks to advance, Towns was waxing poetic about the tournament John Calipari says is for the fans who trekked to Nashville, Tenn., alone. It turns out it might be a bit more meaningful than that.

"We need this tournament to grow and continue our process of being the best team we can possibly be going into the NCAA Tournament," Towns said. "A lot of things we're going to probably work on here and also we're going to get better as individuals playing all these great games."

Auburn awaits after OT upset

UK's next opportunity to play in a "great game" comes Saturday at 1 p.m. against Auburn, which defeated fourth-seeded LSU in overtime, 73-70.

The Tigers trailed by seven with 2:45 left in regulation, but continued their improbable SEC Tournament run thanks in large part to a game-tying 3-pointer by K.T. Harrell in the closing seconds. Harrell has scored 73 points in Auburn's three wins in Nashville and had 17 in the lone regular-season matchup with UK.

Kentucky was dominant in that game, scoring a season high in a 110-75 victory. The rematch will tip at 1 p.m. on ESPN.

Tyler Ulis had seven points and four assists in UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Tyler Ulis had seven points and four assists in UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Same story, different location.

It's rare to face a team in back-to-back games, but it was just six days ago that Kentucky topped Florida in Rupp Arena to close out its historic undefeated regular season. On Friday, in front of what looked and sounded an awful lot like Rupp Arena, Kentucky (32-0) used a similar method to top Florida for a third time this season, 64-49.

"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Wasn't happy with how we started the game, but it was a good win. And the kids fought and guys played, did the stuff they had to do. Didn't shoot it well, still won."

It was just six days ago that Kentucky defeated Florida by 17 points in Rupp Arena by going on a 23-9 run to close out the game after it was just a three-point game with 10:28 remaining. On Friday, the Cats won by 15 points thanks to 14-4 run over the final 7:40.

Florida continued to fight and hang around for much of the second half, but the Cats clamped down on defense over the final 9:29, allowing just two made field goals, including a stretch of five minutes and 10 seconds where they held the Gators scoreless.

"They have a will to win," Coach Cal said. "They do have a will to win and we have enough playmaker kind of players Andrew (Harrison) to Aaron (Harrison) to Karl(-Anthony Towns) now to Trey (Lyles), I think Tyler (Ulis). We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play. To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."

Yet again, Kentucky was able to do what it has done all season, and that's a find a combination of five players that simply works. In working with a bevy of talent such as the 2014-15 Wildcats, Coach Cal can sub players in and out until one lineup clicks.

"And see, that's the advantage we have," Calipari said. "We'll juggle it around until we figure out who is playing well and then we'll ride with those guys. We want to platoon. We want all nine players to play. But if you get in there and you're shaky at all or you're breaking down, it's like, 'OK, going to go with these guys.' "

Against Florida, that combination often included both Andrew Harrison and Ulis. Each point guard played 32 minutes against the Gators. Combined, they finished with 16 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals and just one turnover.

"I'm a facilitator and he can do both," Ulis said about playing with Andrew Harrison. "He's in attack mode every play and that's helping him out a little more to be more aggressive and try to score the ball."

Towns secured his seventh double-double of the year with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Aaron Harrison joined Towns with 13 points, hitting four of his eight shots, and while his stats ween't eye-opening, sophomore forward Dakari Johnson was praised by his teammates for his defensive presence, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots in 11 minutes.

"Dakari played his butt of on the defensive end," Andrew Harrison said. "He didn't get some calls on offense, but Dakari played great. We would not have won without him."

While Coach Cal continues to say he doesn't mind if his team gets a loss and that he doesn't care for conference tournaments, his team believes they need this tournament and will use it to continue to improve in their quest to be the best version of themselves.

They also know, as it has been all season long, the Cats will get their opponent's best game.

"Teams are playing for their last win or to go home, so we're going to get the best out of everybody and that's what we want," Booker said. "We wouldn't want it any other way. We're kind of excited for it."

Notebook: Cats ready for confident Florida

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Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)'s Metz Camfield contributed to this notebook.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats know their quarterfinal opponent in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and it's a very familiar foe at that.

Florida defeated Alabama 69-61 on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., setting up the second matchup in a matter of seven days against the Wildcats, and the third matchup in just five weeks.

"Sometimes (it's) a little bit more difficult when you play against a team that you haven't seen since let's say the middle of January," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "So, these guys will be a little bit familiar with it. The quick turnaround, we're excited we get the opportunity to play."

And in the eyes of Kentucky head coach John Calipari, they should be excited.

"They're good," Coach Cal said. "Everybody is excited about playing us. I'd imagine they were because they played us good both games. My team's - we had a great practice today. I think they're ready to play basketball, whoever it is. They're capable of beating us. No question."

Kentucky topped Florida 68-61 in an exciting game in Gainesville, Fla., but trailed by nine in the first half and didn't take the lead for good until Willie Cauley-Stein's legendary dunk with 12:09 left in the second half. The Cats benefitted greatly by going 21 of 22 at the free-throw line in that game.

Then on Saturday, Kentucky and Florida were separated by just three points with 10:28 remaining in the game before the Cats gained separation in the final 10 minutes.

"They're healthy," Coach Cal said. "They've got a full complement of guys. They should be confident. They played us twice really good."

UK assistant coach John Robic said Tuesday that he feels the concept of "it's difficult to beat a team three times" is a bit exaggerated, saying instead, "it's the next game," and agreed with Donovan in that sometimes it can be more difficult when you haven't played the opponent in a long time because of all that can change during that time in between.

For Kentucky, the SEC Tournament offers the Cats another opportunity to continue to strive to become the best version of themselves. Cauley-Stein said some players were right mentally, and others were still trying to get right, even critiquing himself by saying he has played tentatively of late.

"We feed off him," Coach Cal said. "He's that one guy that can do stuff a normal player can't do, and he hasn't been doing it. He's been getting scored on, he's missing a lot of shots just by--they're physical with him and he's not balanced coming back. But I think he'll be fine."

The question that continues to circle around Kentucky, is what if everyone does in fact click at once and becomes the best version of themselves. Thousands of members of Big Blue Nation who have flocked to Nashville will be hoping to see just that.

"We've had some games this year," Coach Cal said. "You know what it looks like."

Seeing is believing when it comes to Cats fans at SEC Tournament

All season long, UK has relied on its veterans to shepherd its four freshmen.

The experience has been invaluable as the Wildcats have made it four months and 31 games without a loss, but it won't matter much this weekend.

Kentucky, with its No. 1 overall seed all but assured and John Calipari indifferent toward conference tournaments, has decided it will play for the fans in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

It's the same approach the Cats took a year ago, but Coach Cal isn't even bothering to ask his returners to tell the newcomers about just how unbelievable the fan support will be. It's just not necessary.

"They'll see it if they don't know," Calipari said. "When we walk into the game they'll be like, 'What in the world is this?' "

If the Cats watched Wednesday's games at Bridgestone Arena, they'd already have figured it out.

As Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri played a pair of first-round games, most fans - even though their beloved Cats wouldn't play for two days - wore Kentucky blue.

"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "

They'll be a little more vocal about that Friday afternoon, which Calipari appreciates. That still doesn't change what has to happen on the floor.

"I guess it would be better that we had more fans than the other team, but this comes down to us being a good basketball team and playing well," Calipari said. "And I keep saying it: I'm concerned about my team. No one else. If someone else is playing out of their minds and we get beat, we get beat. My thing is, how do we continue to grow and be at our best? And if that's not good enough, it's not good enough."

Calipari expecting tough tournament road

Technically, the postseason begins for Kentucky on Friday.

Coach Cal doesn't have much time for technicalities.

"The real part starts when Sunday we hear how tough our bracket's going to be," Calipari said. "That's when the real stuff starts."

The Selection Show on Sunday will be when the Cats find out their path to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Calipari doesn't expect a primrose path to be laid in front of them.

"It'll be hard," Calipari said. "They called the Lakers and they can't pull out of the NBA right now so I don't think they'll be in there. But it'll be a hard bracket. There won't be a, you're the (top) one seed, you should have this kind of road. No. It will not be that. And that's fine."

And even if it's a professional team awaiting them as a No. 16 seed, the Cats will say, "Bring it on."

"I think if we had to see Oklahoma City or Cleveland, those would be tough," Calipari said. "I'm not sure. And they tell me that Portland's as big as we are. So those would be teams I wouldn't want to see. I hate to say that because they may try to get those people in there."

Preparation changing with tournament format

Some coaches are insistent in approaching tournament play just the same as the regular season.

Not Coach Cal.

"Oh, it changes," Calipari said.

With the prospect of playing three games in three days ahead of his team, Calipari is cutting back.

"We won't have a shoot-around tomorrow," Calipari said. "We will just go right to the gym. If we're lucky enough to win we won't have a shoot-around on Saturday. If you're lucky enough to win you won't have one Sunday. You'll come back and let the next game finish and do some film and walk through and just play basketball games. You're not really doing anything."

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