Instead of clamming up, UK clamps down in victory over Kansas State

March 22, 2014

By Eric Lindsey,

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ST. LOUIS - If first impressions are everything, Andrew Harrison's first shots of the night - two free throws before the tip because of a pregame administrative technical foul on Kansas State for dunking in warm-ups - sent pretty strong signals that these UK players, most of them playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, had more than a few nerves to shed.

Andrew Harrison stepped to the line, spun the ball and lofted the shot, just barely grazing the left side of the rim on its downward trajectory.

"Almost shot an air ball left and we bust out laughing," John Calipari said. "Think about it, this kid is 18 years old in the NCAA Tournament, never been here."

Instead of clamming up, UK clamped down on the defensive end.

The eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (25-10) shook off the early jitters and passed the first test in their NCAA Tournament journey, grinding their way to a 56-49 victory over ninth-seeded Kansas State (20-13) in the opening round for both teams.

There were some tense moments at the end when the Wildcats from Manhattan, Kan., cut a 13-point deficit to just six points in the closing seconds, but UK did enough defensively Friday night to set up a dream matchup with No. 1 seed Wichita State. On Sunday at approximately 2:45 p.m. ET, it will be the team that some predicted could go undefeated at the beginning of the season (UK) vs. the one that actually is (Wichita State).

"They play really hard," Coach Cal said of Wichita State. "They have really good players. You don't go 35 or 36-0 or whatever they are without having really good players. And they have really good players. And they play hard and compete."

But before UK could move on to Wichita State - which the Wildcats started to in the wee hours of Saturday morning in the team hotel - it had to take care of another group of Wildcats.

Kentucky did so Friday with one of its better defensive games of the season. Kansas State wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut this year, but UK made things even more difficult for offensively challenged K-State by limiting Bruce Weber's team to 35.8 percent shooting. '

Kentucky made just 38.0 percent of its shots and scored only 0.93 points per possession - its lowest mark in a win this season - but UK held Kansas State to 0.79 points per possession.

"Kind of cracked down and got a few stops when we needed them," Jarrod Polson said. "That's kind of what we've prided ourselves on the last two or three weeks is just cracking down and D'ing up, and I think we did a good job of that tonight."

Take away Kansas State's three buckets with less than a minute to play and the K-State Wildcats mustered just six field goals in the second half.

After cutting what was a 12-point first-half lead for UK to 35-33 early in the second half, Kansas State managed just one field goal over a stretch of longer than 11 minutes.

Kentucky capitalized on its size advantage - KSU has just one eligible player who measures 6-foot-9 or taller - to disrupt Kansas State's offense. Leading scorers Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson scored early, but they struggled late, scoring just nine combined points in the second half.

Weber said UK's length bothered his undersized team -- and it wasn't just Kentucky's post players.

"I thought their perimeter defense was way better than just watching on some of the games on film," Weber said. "Those dudes fought through screens and got to us. They're long. They not only have size inside, but the Harrisons are 6-5, 6-6. (James) Young is long. They bring in 22 (Alex Poythress), also has great length. So it makes it tough on you."

Calipari gave credit to Aaron Harrison for the perimeter defense. Not only did he score 18 points Friday, he guarded Foster, K-State's best scorer, and limited him to 7-of-18 shooting.

"See, you guys are looking at his numbers offensively, but he is also guarding the best offensive players every game and still scoring," Coach Cal said.

But Kentucky's defense on Friday, as it was during its Southeastern Conference Tournament run, was anchored by Willie Cauley-Stein. The sophomore forward, who had four of UK's seven blocks against Kansas State, has swatted 17 shots over the last four games, going back to the start of the postseason.

During that stretch, UK hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 67 points or shoot better than 44.7 percent.

"Willie, he's done this all year," Calipari said. "It's hard to drive on us when he's in there, so you end up having to take jump shots."

Cauley-Stein also added four steals Friday. It took him just two seconds of game time to get his first one against Kansas State.

The big man from Olathe, Kan., said he's embracing his role as an energy guy now that UK's "second season" has started.

"Absolutely," Cauley-Stein said. "I thought at the beginning of the season that, you know, I did a pretty good job of coming in and doing it. And you know, for a couple games I lost focus of what I was really trying to do and now it's just picking up again. And I mean, it's a difference of the game, for real."

Calipari said Cauley-Stein is just starting to come "into his own."

"All these kids are," Coach Cal said.

Julius Randle broke out of his SEC Tournament funk with 19 points and 15 rebounds, surpassing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins for the most double-doubles for a freshman in UK history with 21 of them.

Andrew Harrison added seven points, five assists and five rebounds, and Young had seven points as well.

Friday was by no means a work of art, but it was good enough for the Cats to survive, advance and set up a date with Wichita State.

The talk on Saturday will be focused on the irony of a team that some thought could go 40-0 facing one that still has realistic goals of it, but for a few hours at least, the Kentucky Wildcats wanted to enjoy Friday night's NCAA Tournament victory.

After all, for most of them, it was their first one.

"I'm really not trying to think about them right now," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm trying to enjoy this win tonight with my teammates in the room. We're going to wake up tomorrow focused, and that's the only thing we can do right now."