KNOXVILLE — If nothing else, John Calipari is a fighter.
He's the street kid who will punch you in the nose if you say something bad about his mother. He's the school-yard guy who will wrestle you in a mud puddle for loose change. He's the man who will argue with you and argue with you and flat wear you down until you see his side. He'll fight you until the last dog dies.
That's all he wants of his team.
Calipari doesn't want to be known as some X-and-O genius who called this play or that play, or the guy who switched defenses at the right time, or the guy who calls timeout so he can draw up the double-down screen that produces the winning bucket.
He'd be fine with that, sure, but he'd rather be known as the coach whose team fights you until the end.
And through this year of ups and downs and highs and lows, of home wins and road failures, Calipari kept preaching the same message about 50-50 balls, and competitive spirit, and will to win, until finally Sunday in Knoxville, as Kentucky roared back to beat Tennessee 64-58 at Thompson-Boling, finally, unequivocally, the message seemed to sink in.
The first time was in the first half. When you look back on it, that awful first half — in which the Cats played awful — that's where Calipari's team won the game.
For Kentucky, it was a horrendous first half. A pitiful first half. Kentucky shot 28.6 percent from the floor, made all of one three-pointer. Terrence Jones (1-for-9) and Brandon Knight (1-for-6) combined to make two of 15 shots. Darius Miller played soft. Josh Harrellson played invisible. The Cats drained four of their five allotted timeouts — for the game.
"How in the world were we only down by seven?" asked Calipari, who nearly strained his back, or his vocal cords or something as many times as he popped up screaming off the bench. "We should have been down 15 or 18."
But they took the punch. A fighter always has to take a punch. You're going to get punched. And Kentucky held Tennessee to 37.9 percent shooting. The Cats were up 23-20 on boards. Better still, they were receptive to Calipari's halftime screed in which the coach went down the line, one-by-one, and did everything but question his players' manhood. What's that? Oh yeah, who are we kidding. He probably did that, too.
"It wasn't friendly," he said.
The Cats responded with a 13-2 run to start the second half and assume a 35-31 lead.
But that wasn't where the Cats won it, not with their fight. This being Tennessee, and this being the Vols' Senior Day, and these being the youthful Cats, the visitors had to show it again, do it again, and with just over a minute left in a one-possession game — Kentucky led 59-56 — that is exactly what they did.
Knight missed a shot and the offensive rebound turned into a wild, scrambling 50-50 mess of a ball, with guys on the floor (mainly Jones) and guys scratching and clawing and tumbling and fumbling, with the ball being yanked out of hands, and flying free, and bouncing and rolling. (Jones couldn't call timeout; the Cats had just that one left.) And bodies flying.
Those are the balls Calipari craves, those he knows a good team has to come up with against all odds and the game on the line.
And somehow, someway, Kentucky came up with the ball, that ball, Brandon Knight snatching the loose orb from a collision of flesh just before it was about to go out of bounds and before he was fouled by the Vols' Melvin Goins.
With 1:02 left, Knight made both free throws to extend the lead to 61-56.
Tennessee was toast.
"I think we came up with all the 50-50 balls in the last four minutes," said a proud Jones afterward.
They also came up with the win, a road win, just their second in conference play. Two weeks ago, when the Cats fell at Arkansas for their sixth SEC road defeat, you had to question whether this team had truly improved, whether it was growing. That was before the Cats beat Florida and Vanderbilt at home, before it beat Tennessee on the road and wrap up that No. 2 seed and first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.
"We grew up today," said Calipari.
They grew into fighters.