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February 20, 2013

Cauley-Stein snaps funk, sparks Cats vs. Vandy

Willie Cauley-Stein had gone into hiding.

It was Sunday, a day after his Kentucky basketball team had endured a 30-point loss at Tennessee, and Cauley-Stein had a foul taste in his mouth. He wanted nothing to do with the world.

He closed it off. He went text-silent.

"I put a sheet over my window," Cauley-Stein said Wednesday night. "It was just dark, and I could just watch Netflix all day and eat when I needed to. You just feel real depressed. I was, like, grumpy."

By Wednesday night, he was smiling again.

But the 7-foot freshman had made Vanderbilt pretty unhappy.

Cauley-Stein scored a season-high 20 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots - two of them in the closing minutes of the game - to help Kentucky hold off the Commodores 74-70 at Rupp Arena.

"He's building his own confidence," UK coach John Calipari said. "And a demonstrated performance is how you build confidence."

Cauley-Stein hadn't demonstrated much against Tennessee. He started in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday in place of fellow freshman Nerlens Noel, who's out for the season after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in last Tuesday's loss at Florida. Cauley-Stein finished with two points on 1-for-4 shooting and two rebounds, fouling out in 23 minutes as UK lost 88-58.

"I remember when I texted my mom that night, it was like, 'It can't get any worse than that,'" Cauley-Stein said. "I've never played a worse game than that in my life."

He hasn't played a better one in college than he did against Vanderbilt.

Cauley-Stein led Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots against Vandy (10-15, 4-9). He shot 8-for-10 from the floor and made 4-of-7 free throws.

"He kind of just did it however he wanted to," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We should have just asked him what his preference was. Did he prefer to dunk, or did he prefer to back us in and jump-hook? Other than asking him, we couldn't have been any more accommodating, I didn't think."

But Cauley-Stein said Vanderbilt's defense was "the same as normal." He credited his relative eruption of offense to improved play from his teammates. Kentucky got 16 points from Archie Goodwin and 12 from Ryan Harrow, and Julius Mays finished with nine points, six rebounds and six assists, making critical plays down the stretch.

"When they play like that, that helps me, because I'm not necessarily a guy that's just going to grab a ball and make something happen," Cauley-Stein said. "When my teammates are doing their thing, that opens my game. Now I can shoot into a gap and do a little jump-hook or get lob dunks."

The Cats picked an opportune time to find some offense.

Vanderbilt trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and by 12 in the second but closed to within 61-59 with 3:54 to play. A Mays three-pointer at the 3:22 mark gave UK some breathing room, and Vandy never got closer than three points the rest of the way.

Nobody used the phrase must-win, but Cauley-Stein said UK "absolutely" was at crossroads entering the game. The Cats played that way early, racing out to a 23-9 lead.

"More of a sense of urgency, more of a sense of pride, like, 'We're not going to let somebody come in here and beat us like Tennessee beat us at their place,'" Cauley-Stein said. "It's that kind of feel, like, 'We're not going to get blown out like that again without fighting back. We're not just going to lay down and let somebody beat us like that.'"

In part, he credited Calipari's impromptu dodgeball game on Tuesday with giving the Cats a lift. It took some of the players out of a post-Tennessee funk, including Cauely-Stein, who came out of his man-made cave and stepped into the spotlight, determined to rid himself of that taste of Tennessee.

"You know when you throw up and you've got that after taste?" Cauley-Stein said. "That's what it tastes like. Nobody likes throwing up."


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