John Clay: Cats defy feeling of dread, hold off Commodores

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 20, 2013 

Just when you thought most everyone around this Kentucky basketball program had lost their grip, the Cats themselves found a way to hold on to their own.

Not that you had a lot of confidence that was going to happen Wednesday night at Rupp Arena, that John Calipari's club would hold on for a much-needed 74-70 victory over visiting Vanderbilt.

The host Cats shot 61 percent the first half, led pretty much from opening tip to final horn, yet all along you had this feeling of dread.

Archie Goodwin was playing the way you thought Archie Goodwin would play all year. Ryan Harrow had rediscovered his mojo. Willie Cauley-Stein was scoring and rebounding and blocking shots the way that guy over there with the crutches, Nerlens Noel, was doing before he needed those crutches.

And yet . . .

And yet . . .

You just had a feeling that any minute now, as Kevin Stallings' club staged a second-half comeback, the wheels would come off.

They never did.

Not all the way, anyway.

The Commodores cut it to 61-59 with 3:54 left, but in the end the team that had been holding on since getting rocked 88-58 at Rocky Top found a way to hold on.

"We gave up 20 points to a guy who's not averaging 20," said Stallings, referring to Cauley-Stein's 20 points. "That will usually get you beat."

Cauley-Stein, the freshman who managed twice as many turnovers (four) as points (two) or rebounds (two) against Tennessee, contributed a season high in points.

He also had a pair of key blocks down the stretch.

But really and truly the key was the play of the Kentucky guards, who had not played anywhere near their capabilities in the pair of road losses last week.

Goodwin finished with 16 points and a smart 16 points.

At one point in the second half, the freshman nearly went into one of his trademark drives through trouble, thought better of it, backed the ball out, and took in the grateful applause of the crowd.

Then there was Harrow, who had managed successive goose eggs in each of the last two games and had lost his starting spot for the game at Tennessee.

Harrow was back in the starting lineup on Wednesday — he asked Calipari to start him — and took advantage of the opportunity, scoring 12 points.

Harrow was aggressive with the basketball, showing some of the fight that Calipari wanted and the new introductions video stressed with its "Let's Fight" theme.

Stallings was asked in the post-game news conference when it was apparent that his team was having trouble on the defensive end.

"They kept going by us," Stallings said. "That was a pretty good indicator."

"We opened the floor up," Calipari said. "I think that helped us."

Another thing that helped them: Calipari had his team play dodgeball, then put the video up on his website immediately after the game.

And yet, with all the indicators that Kentucky was indeed playing well, you just couldn't help thinking that the spell would wear off, that the recent troubles would rear their ugly head yet again.

But then Julius Mays buried a three-pointer from the right wing at the 3:21 mark to put Kentucky ahead 64-59.

And Cauley-Stein jammed home a lob from Mays to make it 66-60 with 2:09 left.

And Harrow scored on a neat little drive with 1:26 remaining to keep the Cats in front 68-62.

In the final 58 seconds, Kentucky made six of eight free throws to run its conference record to 9-4.

"I thought we were very coachable tonight," is the way Calipari opened his news conference with a sly smile. "Do you hear anything else I said on the bench that will end up on PTI?"

No, but there were a lot of smiles.

Hold on.

The season isn't over yet.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226 Email: jclay@herald-leader.com Twitter: @johnclayiv Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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