In its previous experience dealing with a taut struggle and hostile fans, Kentucky lost at South Carolina. So from a bottom-line perspective, Tuesday's 81-75 overtime victory at Mississippi State represented improvement.
"Every game we play we grow up a little bit more," freshman big man DeMarcus Cousins said. "We mature more as a team and individuals."
Without noticeable enthusiasm, UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged the Cats are "getting better" in situations that demand heady play. But he also noted plenty of improvement that still needs to be made by his freshman-oriented team.
So there was Calipari huddled with freshman guard Eric Bledsoe as the teams warmed up for the second half.
"Don't worry about how you played in the first half," Calipari said he told Bledsoe. "Just play better in the second half."
Two fouls limited Bledsoe to six minutes in the first half. Besides fouls and minutes played, the only other number other than a zero on his first-half stat line was one turnover.
"I'm coaching all these young kids ...," Calipari said. "If we play poorly, we let it affect us. Now we can't play. We foul. We do something dumb.
"After the game, one of the things I told them was we've got to start growing up."
As he reviewed the victory in his post-game news conference, Calipari cited several examples of how the Cats could have better handled the possession-by-possession competition. The list included:
n Twice fouling Mississippi State players down the stretch of regulation. Four-for-four free-throw shooting produced four of the six straight points that gave the Bulldogs a 67-60 lead with three minutes left.
"You know how mad I was we fouled?" Calipari said in asking a rhetorical question.
The second foul, of point guard Dee Bost, came 15 seconds after a television time out.
"That was out of (a timeout)," the UK coach said. "We told them, you're not fouling now, and we fouled 40 feet from the goal. I almost lost my mind."
n Cousins going for a steal, helping Barry Stewart get a path to the basket.
"Luckily, we (Patrick Patterson) blocked a shot," Calipari said. "We didn't want to. We just wanted to lock down and make it tough for them."
n Substituting Ramon Harris for Cousins in hopes of better defending State's pick-and-roll action. Harris switched, but DeAndre Liggins didn't.
In comparing the final minutes at South Carolina with the victory at Mississippi State, Calipari shouldered the blame for the loss in Columbia. He said he put too much of the responsibility for winning or losing on his freshman guards.
"Here I am throwing it to John Wall (who is) 19 years old, and not helping him through it," Calipari said. "That stuff should be on me when it gets like that. And I didn't do it. That was just me and not my team."
Calipari called three time outs in the final 3:15 of regulation at Mississippi State.
The first didn't help when Darnell Dodson fouled Bost.
The second came with 3.8 seconds left when Bledsoe called timeout after crossing mid-court.
"Because Eric had the ball," Calipari said. "If John had it, we'd let them play it out.
"It's not that I don't want Eric to make that play. John has made it 10 times. You have to go with the percentages."
The third came immediately following the second when UK couldn't inbound the ball.
Wall, Cousins and Patterson became the first trio of UK players to record double-doubles in the same game since 1977. Wall flirted with a triple-double (18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists). No wonder State denied him the ball, leaving Liggins missing a potential game-winning shot from the right baseline.
As a sign of UK remaining a work in progress, Calipari thought about a lineup change.
Dodson missed all three of his three-point attempts, making him 2-for-13 from beyond the arc in the past four games.
By contrast, Liggins continued to contribute in many ways. His two blocks gave him four in the past three games. His four rebounds gave him 32 in the past six games. His two assists gave him six in the last pwo games.
"Should he be starting?" Calipari said. But a moment later, the UK coach added, "The reason I like to bring DeAndre off the bench is I like his energy."
Darius Miller, the starter at the wing for the first 21 games, scored nine points. He'd had only seven in the most recent six games.
His three baskets and nine points were his most since making seven of nine shots and scoring 18 points against Arkansas on Jan. 23.
"Did he earn his spot back?" Calipari said. "Maybe he did."
Patterson provided another hopeful sign. His 19 points and 10 rebounds marked his first double-double since Kentucky played Long Beach State on Dec. 23. His three blocks were a season high.
"It's what we've been waiting for," Calipari said. "The rebounds. The scoring points. He's capable of doing it. We're begging him to do it."
In a month or so, Kentucky will ask Patterson and company to do it under the make-or-break conditions of the post-season.
When asked if the game at Mississippi State had the feel of the NCAA Tournament, Cousins quickly agreed that the competition and atmosphere were challenging.
"If the NCAA is going to be like this," he said, "it's going to be a long road."