John Clay: Cauley-Stein delivers on Calipari's bet

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 9, 2013 

If this was indeed a save-your-season game, let the record show the 2012-13 Kentucky basketball season was saved with 11:15 left in the second half of the final regular-season game.

That was when Coach John Calipari looked at Willie Cauley-Stein, sitting on the Kentucky bench with four fouls, and told his freshman center to go back in the game.

"I said, 'I'm forgetting he has four,'" Calipari would say later.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Let the record show that 11 minutes and 15 seconds later — the last 7:36 of which the visiting Florida Gators failed to score a point — Cauley-Stein was still on the floor with four fouls (and celebrating) and the Kentucky Wildcats were still swimming, thank you, with a 61-57 victory over the 11th-ranked Florida Gators.

"Willie," said UK senior Julius Mays, "changed the game."

And with it, he may have changed the campaign.

Teetering on the brink of sliding right off the NCAA Tournament bubble, Kentucky got the big win it needed in the biggest game of the season, wiping away the memory of Thursday's dispiriting loss at Georgia by beating the team that had already clinched the conference title.

And to get the big win, the Cats needed the big man from Kansas on the floor for every one of his 25 minutes.

"He just brought unbelievable energy," teammate Archie Goodwin said.

Isn't that what they said about the player Cauley-Stein replaced, the shot-blocking sensation UK lost for the season with a torn ACL about a month ago?

It was against these very Gators that Nerlens Noel went down, landing awkwardly after hustling back to block a Florida shot after a Kentucky turnover. That came with 8:03 left in what turned out to be a 17-point Kentucky loss and began a bumpy path that included three home wins and three road losses for Calipari's Cats.

So here were the Cats, up 45-38 on the Gators, when Cauley-Stein picked up his fourth foul with 13:42 remaining and took a seat on the Kentucky bench.

Florida immediately picked up the pace. Mike Rosario was fouled on a drive and made two free throws. Scottie Wilbekin scored on a drive. Patric Young scored in the paint. Young scored in the paint again, giving Florida a 46-45 lead.

The hole in the middle of the Kentucky defense was as obvious as the hole in the Cats' tournament résumé.

Calipari called timeout. He put Cauley-Stein back in the game. He gave one instruction.

"A basket doesn't kill us," Calipari told his big man. "You fouling out can kill us."

Cauley-Stein didn't foul out. Instead, he rebounded. He hustled. He made steals. He blocked shots. He provided the anchor to a Kentucky defense that held the Gators scoreless on their final 14 possessions.

"He stepped up big to be able to play that many minutes without picking up his fifth foul, and he made big plays with those four fouls," Mays said.

"To play with four fouls like he did at the end was huge," said Goodwin.

If Cauley-Stein picks up his fifth foul, no way Florida goes scoreless for more than seven minutes. If Cauley-Stein picks up his fifth foul, no way Kentucky wins the game it had to win.

"They had times when they could have scored. Just Willie's presence, I think it scared them and it made them alter shots and just throw it at the rim," Mays said. "And we came up with big rebounds."

Funny how at the start of the season, the 7-foot former football player was the least heralded of UK's four signees. And yet, in the end, he was the one the Cats needed the most.

"Man, if you had seen Willie in the summer you would have expected him to be here for a long time," said Goodwin, "long" getting the emphasis and a laugh from the media. "That just goes to show how far along he's come and how quick he did it. He's an exceptional player now."

Kentucky is not an exceptional team, not this year, but it is one step closer to being an NCAA Tournament team.

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

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