Aaron Harrison scored all 14 of his points in the second half of UK's win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
John Calipari was talking about just one game, but he summed up Aaron Harrison's two seasons at Kentucky along the way.
"Aaron basically threw dagger after dagger," Coach Cal said.
Marcus Lee, speaking after Harrison's latest clutch display, did the same.
"If he's throwing it up, I'm gonna go shake hands with everybody else," Lee said.
Yet again, it was the sophomore shooting guard who sent UK (18-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) to the postgame handshake line victorious. He scored seven of the Wildcats' final nine points to seal a 65-57 win over Vanderbilt (11-7, 1-4 SEC).
"I think it's fun to be in that situation and it's fun to be the guy that people look to to take the big shot and make the big shot," Harrison said.
The big shot, on this Tuesday night, was a 3-pointer with 2:09 remaining.
The Commodores, who never wilted before a top-ranked UK team and a Rupp Arena crowd of 24,249, had just cut Kentucky's lead to four on a 3 by Matthew Fisher-Davis.
On the crucial possession, Devin Booker tried his hand at the big shot and missed from outside for just the ninth time in his last 29 tries. Harrison, however, kept the play alive with an offensive rebound, passed and drifted to the left corner, just a few feet from the wing where so many of his memorable makes have come from. The ball came to Booker, who with a small opening at another try from deep elected instead to pass on to Harrison.
"Devin made a great extra pass and I knew I had to make the shot and (be) ready and focused for it and knocked it down," Harrison said.
Harrison would hit two free throws in the final minute to bring his team-high scoring total to 14, a number he seemed unlikely to hit when he left the floor at halftime. At that point, he was scoreless, having taken just one shot in seven minutes as UK led 33-26.
The performance surely drew the kind of paint-peeling message you'd expect, but Coach Cal merely smiled and said he told Harrison he loved him. Harrison knew that was the sentiment behind what he heard from his coach, though those might not have been Calipari's exact words.
"I guess it's really, really, really tough love," Harrison said, drawing hearty laughs from the horde of reporters gathered around.
Whatever Calipari said, it worked. The Aaron Harrison who played the second half hardly resembled the one who was on the floor for the first 20 minutes.
"I think he played so well in the second half," Calipari said. "That's who he is."
For some, a first half like that makes a similarly poor second half a given, but not Harrison.
"I think it's just his confidence knowing that no matter what happens in the first half, the second half, he can come back and do what he needs to do," said Marcus Lee, who had six of his seven points in a flurry that sparked UK after a sluggish second-half start. "There are some players who when a couple bad things happen they just go in a hole. He knows he's good enough where he can just keep going."
Harrison kept going and carried UK down the stretch, but he was hardly alone.
His twin brother, Andrew, and Willie Cauley-Stein combined with him to score UK's final 15 points and it was the 7-footer who delivered when Vandy cut the lead to three with 5:06 left.
First, Cauley-Stein snagged one of his three steals, a familiar sight for arguably the nation's top defender. But on the other end of the floor, he showed something new. Receiving a pass a few feet inside the 3-point arc on the left wing, Cauley-Stein didn't hesitate in taking and making a jumper that prompted a double-take from even his coach.
"Willie did what Willie does," Calipari said. "Then he took that jumper and I know we all looked at each other like what in the world. But he's been practicing that. That's something that he's been working on."
Aaron Harrison, meanwhile, was happy to share the big-shot spotlight.
"I was really proud of Willie for even taking that shot because I know last year he wouldn't have even taken than shot," Aaron Harrison said. "So just to see him have the confidence to take that shot and make that shot, I'm excited for him and happy for him."
Cauley-Stein might not have been the likeliest suspect to make a clutch jumper, but you can now add him to the list of players capable of delivering a basket when it matters most.
That list, it's a long one.
"I don't think we have just one guy for that," Lee said. "I think we have a whole team that can do that. They're all complete finishers and have done that their whole lives. It just comes out natural."
John Calipari often says there's no room for delusional players at Kentucky.
Derek Willis, then, picked the right school.
Asked on Monday what he needs to do to earn more playing time, Willis gave a refreshingly candid answer.
"I'm trying to be self-critical about everything right now, and I think just be more focused, just show that I really want to be here and I don't think, being honest, I've done that," Willis said.
The Mt. Washington, Ky., native, halfway through his sophomore season, has had a limited role on a top-ranked and historically deep UK team. Willis has seen action in nine games for the 17-0 (4-0 Southeastern Conference) Wildcats, most often in the final minutes of their frequent blowout wins.
Willis arrived in Lexington a highly regarded prospect, though without the McDonald's All-American credentials of most of his teammates. A star for Bullitt East High School, the 6-foot-9 forward had had to adjust to getting only spot duty.
"It's just kind of weird," Willis said. "I mean, you go your whole life playing and then you're just not playing as much, so I don't know. Just kind of fallen out of the game, just don't know what to do really, just looking for answers."
The first step to finding the answers, of course, is asking the right questions. One question he's never asked is whether UK is the place for him.
"I'm going to stay here four years, regardless," Willis said. "I love this place."
For the questions he doesn't have answers for, Willis has consulted everyone from his father to his friends to Coach Cal. A common theme has emerged.
"Just get in the gym more and be around the game more, I guess," Willis said.
Making that commitment in Willis' position isn't easy though.
"He's gotta really step on the gas and it's hard now," Calipari said. "When you haven't been playing to come in every day and spend extra time and not know if you're going to play or not. It's one thing if you know you're one of those 10 and you're playing. It's another thing if you're one of 10 or 11 or 12 and you don't know if you're going to play. It's a hard thing, especially for a young guy."
That's why the last week has been so important.
When Coach Cal elected to go back to the 10-man platoon system against Missouri last Tuesday, Dominique Hawkins - who has spent most of the season seated next to Willis on the bench - took full advantage of his opportunity.
"Dominique stepped up the last game that he played and played well," assistant coach John Robic said.
Four days later, with Hawkins - whose status is unknown for UK's next game - out after undergoing a minor medical procedure, it was Willis who got four minutes of first-half action in a blowout win at Alabama, posting two rebounds and a steal. Calipari and Robic both said he did well, but Willis was once again honest in admitting he was nervous in playing his first meaningful minutes in a long while.
"I was a little tense out there," Willis said. "I haven't really gotten a lot of experience in the games this year, other than like the beginning of the season, and I went out there and just tried to do like a million different things. My mind was all worried about everything else really but the game."
That drives at maybe the most difficult challenge facing Willis: balancing between the honesty and self-reflection needed to earn more time and the confidence needed to play well when he gets it. To cope with that, Willis would likely do well to listen to his teammates.
"Derek's been playing very well with the minutes that he's getting," Trey Lyles said. "He practices with us every day, so he just had to get his opportunity to go out there and play and that's what he did the other day. He did well."
Willis also excelled this summer on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour, averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 rebounds. With Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein out due to injury, he stepped in and more than held his own against professional opponents.
"With Willie not playing down there, it sort of put him into that role, and it was good to see," Robic said. "That was a little bit more free-wheeling type of basketball, which he's really good (at) because of his athleticism, the way he can pass the ball."
It was that passing ability that earned Willis six minutes last season against Vanderbilt, UK's next opponent. The Cats unable to effectively find post players inside, Coach Cal turned to Willis, who counts feeding the post as a specialty. With the Commodores (11-6, 1-3 SEC) coming to town at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Willis will need to be ready again.
But whether he plays against Vandy or not, he knows his time will come as long as he does what he needs to.
"I'll get a chance," Willis said. "I've just got to like turn it on. I know I can play. Everyone else knows I can play, and so I've just got to turn it on, kick it into gear. I haven't (done) that yet."
On the road recruiting, John Calipari called into the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday ahead of matchups with Vanderbilt and South Carolina this week. Read everything he had to say about the games, Devin Booker's development and Dominique Hawkins' status below, as well as comments from Vandy's Kevin Stallings and South Carolina's Frank Martin.
On this week's games ... "Well, they're both hard games. I watched some of the Vanderbilt tape, especially their game with Georgia. I think their big kid (Damian Jones) is really good. Obviously they shoot the ball well. Got a freshman (Riley LaChance) that'll shoot from anywhere and make it. And Kevin is at his best with these kind of teams. They're running like a combination of Princeton (offense) and their stuff to free 3-point shooters. So he's doing a little combo, but he's doing a great job with them. And then Frank's teams are Frank's teams. They're going to play hard. You're not just getting a game. When you go in there--we've lost, I think we've lost the last couple times we've gone in there. You're going to have to play. They're not giving you anything. They beat Iowa State and I watched the game. I called Frank after and I thought what a great win for his program and our league. So he's doing the things that he's gotta do to give his guys a chance, which he always does, and it's a hard place for us to play."
On Devin Booker's development ... "The thing that I was on him for early is getting it off. It's not high school; you're not going to jump over anybody. You gotta be able to catch and get it off. You gotta be able to have your shot prepared before you even catch the ball. And he's doing that. The rim has gotten big for him because of that, because it's not a slow, I'm going to jump over you and then all of a sudden the guy's all over him. These are looks that he's saying, 'I'm getting a good look at the rim.' But more importantly, you guys all keep looking at him shooting the ball and it's good stuff, but defensively I never thought he'd guard this way. His energy defensively, his ability to stay in front, fight screens is what's setting him apart for us right now. So we can all talk shooting, but the reason we're winning is because when you put him in and Tyler (Ulis), that energy defensively is what really takes us to another level." On the difference between coaching freshmen like his who will likely leave early and freshmen like Vanderbilt's who will stay four years ... "No, the reality of it is, you know what, we're all in position where we're forcing these kids to grow up fast. Kevin's asking them to grow up fast. So am I. We all have challenges. I told a coaching friend of mine the other day, 'Every team's having problems, all of us, and you gotta deal with yours better than someone else is dealing with his.' So the problems Kevin will have with freshmen, some of them are similar to what I'll have. Some of them are not. I know we're all dealing with helping these kids confidence-wise, feeling good about themselves, getting them to understand there's no escaping industry, hard work. You can't escape it. Either you're going to go and outwork the other guy or you're going to break down your confidence. And that's hard freshmen. Here's what freshmen usually have done in high school: Every fifth play, they did something really good that people said, 'Oh my gosh.' And the other four, they tried to hide, they tried to just kind walk through. And then they come to college and you're asking them to play on every single possession. Guess what. Really difficult for them. That's the challenge we all have." On the lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson ... "It depends on the game. I mean, guys, every game we play, somebody different has stepped up and done great. That's the great thing about having a lot of guys. What I say to them at times is, 'Look, I don't need all 10 of you to play well. I need five of you, and I'll ride those five. But if you want to play, play well.' And playing well for us is come with energy. Play extremely hard and I can leave you on the floor. If they're scoring points on your group, you're out. If you're the one not doing your thing at times, I'll take you out. Kind of the challenge is for them to help each other, to be there for each other and play off of one another. They seem to be doing it pretty good."
On what he liked about the aforementioned lineup against Alabama ... "There was a really good play where Andrew came down and assisted Tyler for a 3. Tyler assisted him for a 3, and he didn't take it. I was tell him to shoot it. That's how they have to play. If the other has the ball, you're the finisher, he's the playmaker. Either one of you two. And then, it gives you that one more ball handler, one more free-throw shooter that we can really grind out. And what we did against Alabama I'm guessing the last five minutes is play grind it out basketball. We weren't looking to score 85 (points). We were looking as though that was a six-point game and we have to grind it out and finish the game. And that's what we were working on and I thought they did pretty good."
On if there are matchups where Derek Willis will play more, or if it's strictly based on practice ... "He's gotta really step on the gas and it's hard now. When you haven't been playing to come in every day and spend extra time and not know if you're going to play or not. It's one thing if you know you're one of those 10 and you're playing. It's another thing if you're one of 10 or 11 or 12 and you don't know if you're going to play. It's a hard thing, especially for a young guy. But, Dom gives us that unbelievable energy that that unit needs. Now, if he's not bringing it, or something (where) I look at this and I say, Derek's better and Derek's earned time in practice, then it'll be Derek. Everybody was ecstatic for Dom, and then they were ecstatic for Derek last game. Now, I didn't put him in the first rotation because I didn't think he was ready for that. But I put him in the next rotation. Then in the second half we kind of got out of whack and I just was more or less trying to finish the game, but they both have done great." On the status of Dominique Hawkins ... "I don't know yet because I haven't seen him, but I would imagine after two days he should be fine."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings
Opening statement ... "We're coming off tough week. We lost a couple of close games that we felt like we could have won. So, it doesn't get any easier. Kentucky and LSU are both extremely, extremely talented. We're just going to have to try to figure out how to make ourselves better and climb out of this valley we're in a little bit. Every week is a tough week in this league. This one certainly is as tough as any we will have. I'm hoping our guys are up to it."
On if coaches would prefer to coach players three or four years as opposed to just one ... "I guess that depends on the stipulations. I certainly think that all of us would coach one and done guys if we were able to recruit those types of talents. Do I think that there are a large portion of coaches who would prefer maybe some different rules to where guys had to be in college a little bit longer? Perhaps so. Or maybe let them sign out of high school if they're that type of talent, and then maybe have a modified rule like baseball does or something. But certainly I think all of us would recruit and coach that type of player if we could get them."
On the ability of Kentucky's defense to take away players' confidence ... "Their defense is perhaps as good as I've ever seen. And, I don't think from a positive or negative perspective, I think if you allow your mojo, if you will, to be defined by what happens in one game, particularly in a game against Kentucky, then I think you're missing the boat a little bit because they're different than just about every other team we play, or they are than every other team we play. So, I don't think that that - I'm hopeful that that's not something I have to worry about. But, their defense is truly amazing. Hopefully it doesn't happen to where our confidence gets dinged any more than it already is." On Kentucky's shooting ability ... "Well, they've got shot makers and I just think they're a complete team. I think that's what makes them better than everyone else. They're complete. They're really good shooting. They're really good rebounding. They're really good defending. They're great at the rim, both offensively and defensively. They take care of the ball. They share it. There's just nothing that they're not doing well. You can sit back and hope they miss shots, but the numbers suggest they're not going to. They've got guys on that team that have made shots to win NCAA championships, so it's not like they're nervous about taking shots. Those two freshman guards obviously have come in and shot it very, very well. So, shooting is, to me, is a strength of Kentucky's. It's certainly not a weakness."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On games this week against Tennessee and Kentucky ... "Obviously we got two homes this week starting with Tennessee tomorrow. Donnie Tyndall, the job he's done to go through the transition phase and deal with injuries and defections and new faces and get them playing at the level they're at. A credit to him, his staff and those kids. And then finish off the week with the best team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, here also at home. Exciting week for us. Hard, but exciting and that's what it's all about in league play."
On what last year's win over Kentucky did for his program and what kind of atmosphere he expects Saturday ... "Well, I mean, those are the kind of wins that you want to build on. Anytime you can figure out a way to defeat one of the top programs in the country year in and year out and especially when they're in your own league. And I think that gave our guys confidence. We'd been close a whole lot towards the end of last year when we got that win. I think it gave us confidence, I think it gave our fans confidence and I think it's no surprise that we're fourth in the league in attendance, that our fans are buying into our players and our team and hopefully it's something we continue to build on."