NASHVILLE — After Kentucky beat Arkansas 78-63 Sunday, Willie Cauley-Stein dropped the pretenses players, coaches and reporters routinely share in interviews. No pretending. No posing. No hiding behind clichés. No deceptive grandiloquence.
"We don't like that team," he said of Arkansas. "Straight up. I'll tell you. We don't like that team."
Nor did Cauley-Stein try to hide the motivation that came with playing against Arkansas' Bobby Portis, who the Southeastern Conference coaches voted the league's Player of the Year.
Was Cauley-Stein motivated?
"Very," he said. "Personally, I thought I should have been Player of the Year. ... I was going to show everybody in the world I should have been Player of the Year."
Cauley-Stein, who was named the SEC Tournament's Most Valuable Player, scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Incidentally, that marked the second straight SEC Tournament finals he had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds against Florida last season).
Portis was a non-factor: 13 points, two rebounds.
"Willie is Willie," teammate Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He can dominate anytime he wants to."
Winning the program's 28th SEC Tournament (one more than all other teams combined) and rolling into the NCAA Tournament with a 34-0 record did not quite capture the fulfillment that came with this victory.
"Winning the championship is one thing," Cauley-Stein said. "But we were trying to beat that team again."
Cauley-Stein noted how Kentucky objected to Arkansas players defiantly wanting another game against Kentucky even though UK won by 17 in the regular season.
"They were talking trash before the game," he said. "Like, what are you all talking for? We just beat you by 20 at home."
UK's talent and Arkansas' pressing/trapping/open-up-the-floor style gave promise to an entertaining championship game.
It was entertaining even though Kentucky never trailed for a 13th time this season.
Arkansas' second-leading scorer, Michael Qualls, did not start for only the second time this season. After a slow start, he finished with a game-high 18 points.
Even without much from Qualls, Arkansas played noticeably better in the first half than in the opening 20 minutes in Lexington two weekends earlier. The improvement was of negligible effect on the scoreboard.
As in Rupp Arena, Kentucky led by 16 points at halftime (41-25 here, 42-26 in the regular season).
UK fans roared as the Cats scored the game's first eight points, prompting an Arkansas timeout 99 seconds after tip-off. Arkansas had not trailed in its SEC Tournament victories over Tennessee and Georgia.
Kentucky made 14 of 27 shots in the first half. Transition offense — in part the product of Arkansas' pressing/trapping style — helped explain the hot shooting as UK had eight points in transition (or as many as in 19 previous games this season).
The most spectacular came off a lob by Aaron Harrison to Cauley-Stein who — as if ascending on an escalator — steadily rose and then emphatically flushed. Harrison's mouth was agape as he retreated to the defensive side of the court.
"Coach (John Calipari) is always in my ear about it," Cauley-Stein said of his new-found scoring (14.0 ppg in the SEC Tournament). "If we're going to make a good run, I'm going to have to contribute on offense, and continue to play really good defense. It carries everybody and it flows on to everybody else."
When asked if this was Kentucky's best half of the season, Towns had a telling response. "We've played so many great halves, I can't tell you," he said. "But it was definitely the half we needed."
Fouls complicated Kentucky's second half. Andrew Harrison and Towns picked up their third fouls inside the first 94 seconds.
That didn't seem significant until Arkansas rallied. A jumper by Qualls reduced UK's lead to 48-39 with 11:57 left. That marked the first time UK had not led by double digits since the 5:46 mark of the first half.
Four straight baskets by a suddenly alive Qualls kept Arkansas close. But the Hogs got no closer than nine.
"In the huddle, we said it's time to just get rid of them," Devin Booker said. "Instead of letting them stick around to the end of the game."