CANCUN, Mexico — After beating Stanford on Wednesday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari kept emphasizing that the victory would not have come without DeMarcus Cousins' contributions.
The problem was, Stanford came close to being able to say the same thing.
Cousins was at his mercurial best and worst in UK's 73-65 overtime victory in the Cancun Challenge championship game.
His 13 points, five rebounds, three blocks and presence around the basket steadied the Cats on a night Patrick Patterson had to overcome a sprained ankle and foul trouble. Plus, Kentuckyfaced an opponent playing inspired basketball.
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But Cousins' air-ball free throw early in the second half, disregard of Calipari's order later to try to make a free throw and ill-conceived three-point shot at crunch time gave Stanford reasons to think it could win.
Without mentioning Cousins' name, Calipari noted that a team approach eluded some of his players.
"We've got some other guys who are just learning to play with the team," the Kentucky coach said.
Thereafter, as reporters asked about the miscues, Calipari repeatedly mentioned Cousins by name.
In post-game interviews, Cousins slumped in a chair and looked glum. He took no visible joy in the team's just-concluded championship achievement.
But to his credit, the big man from Alabama responded to each and every question while often thoughtfully running a finger through the hair on his chin.
"I'm actually happy," he said. "I'm just disappointed in myself. Some plays I made down the stretch nearly cost the game for my team."
Most surprising was Cousins' two free throws with 10.6 remaining in the second half. UK trailed 63-61.
Cousins left the first free throw short off the front of the rim. On the second, he threw it hard off the rim and backboard and charged forward in an attempt for a putback.
"You tell him to make the free throw," Calipari said of the second shot. "He missed it on purpose and jumps on the guy's back. You're like, 'What are you doing? You're not doing what I'm asking you to do.'
"That shows you he's a freshman. Now what I'm hoping is, he learns from this. You do what you're told to do because the team's playing off what I'm telling you to do."
Cousins cited "miscommunication" for not trying to make the free throw. "I thought he said shoot it high," he said.
Cousins acknowledged that his air-ball free throw with 8:27 left in regulation affected his judgment at the end.
"My confidence is real low right now in my free throws," he said. He made three of eight against Stanford to lower his season's accuracy to 50 percent (18-for-36).
Of the free-throw attempts with 10.6 seconds left, Cousins said, "When I went up to the line, I shouldn't have been thinking of (the air ball), but I was going up thinking I was going to miss it. Which I shouldn't have been doing.
"I just need to get in a gym and work on it."
Cousins' three-point miss offered several avenues for second-guessing. It came with UK clinging to a 56-55 lead with less than four minutes left in a game during which neither team ever enjoyed a double-digit lead. It came early in the shot clock. He had attempted only one three-point shot this season. Calipari had ordered him to pass the ball.
"What that tells me is, if we're in a tough game and it's late in the game, I probably don't put him in," Calipari said. "That's OK."
Rest assured, Cousins will see plenty of action. Calipari reminded reporters that Cousins made the All-Tournament team after averaging 13.5 points, six rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the two games in Mexico.
When asked what kind of load Cousins was around the basket, Stanford Coach Johnny Dawkins said, "He's an 18-wheeler. Cousins is — in the true sense of the word — he's a true big man."
Cousins isn't the only Kentucky freshman to have bumpy moments so far this season. Calipari noted that John Wall, the tournament MVP, tried to do too much in the first half against Stanford. "In the second half, he played for his team," the coach said.
Eric Bledsoe's turnover habit reached a nadir with four against Cleveland State on Tuesday. Then against Stanford, he played with a newfound sense of self-control.
"He's a great kid," Calipari said. "He's listening. He pouted yesterday, and you learn from it. He apologized to his team.
"These kids are 18 and 19 (years old). What leads DeMarcus to do what he did? He has no idea."
Calipari suggested that Cousins is only reacting in the way that's familiar to him.
"When he was in high school or AAU six months ago, that's what he did," the UK coach said in emphasizing how new college basketball is to Cousins. "'I'm going to win this on my own.'"
On the plus side, Cousins has showed a remarkable knack for scoring while absorbing contact.
"You just expect contact," he said of this skill. "Me, I expect it. I get beat the whole game. ... I'm used to it. It's the only way they can stop me."
The problem is, Cousins is such an emotional player that he can be distracted by a physical opponent.
Cleveland State, no shrinking violet of a team by any means, induced Cousins to retaliate. The referees saw the retaliation and hit Cousins with a technical foul.
Calipari said he wanted Cousins not to overtly react and let opponents get the best of him.
"You can deal with it or you can lose your mind, and they win every time," the UK coach said. "We're telling him directly that. You have to be a man. Be a man."
Cousins must expect the rough stuff.
"How else do you play a kid that big?" Calipari said. "His whole life they've been hanging on to him, grabbing him, kicking him. The officials won't give him a call because they say you're bigger. You don't deserve it. And he goes nuts."
Cousins said physical play doesn't "get in my head. It just gets me going. I play off emotion."
But Cousins acknowledged that he sometimes wishes he had the stoic demeanor of fellow freshman Daniel Orton.
Ultimately, Cousins said, he must be himself.
"That's just how I play," he said. "That gets me going."
Meanwhile, Calipari said he hoped other Kentucky players learned from Cousins' miscues. Cousins also must learn, a process he said was ongoing.
"I've got to be disciplined on the floor," he said. "More focused in the huddle. Listen better. All the little mistakes I'm going to learn from."
After a pause, he added, "I really just need to listen."
Calipari laughed when asked whether he'd ever had another player disobey a direct order. No, he hadn't.
And on a free throw, Cousins could not say he had to improvise because of unexpected circumstances.
When asked whether he might try new tactics to make Cousins a steadier player, Calipari said, "I'm bringing him along at the pace I can do it (pause) and still have my sanity."