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Return of Cauley-Stein Boosts UK in Rout of Gamecocks

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale.

In his first game playing significant minutes since a procedure on his injured knee, UK freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein did not look like someone who had played just four minutes in the last five games.

After South Carolina took its only lead of the game Tuesday at 18-17 with 10:22 remaining in the first half, Cauley-Stein helped spark a 19-2 run that blew the game open en route to a 77-55 win.

With 9:10 remaining, he completed a three-point play to stretch the lead to four. He also contributed a rebound and a block in the run.

But it was not Cauley-Stein’s contributions in the box score that impressed his coach.

“Willie Cauley-Stein was unbelievable,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “And you say, what do he do? He just added energy.”

Energy was one thing Cauley-Stein wasn’t lacking after missing four consecutive games and making a brief appearance at Texas A&M Saturday.

“It was a lot of fun being able to run again,” he said. “For two weeks, I couldn’t run as hard as I could. That’s what I do: run. So it was real fun to be back out with the guys and just doing what I like doing.” 

Cauley-Stein finished the game with 13 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes.

While his statistics don’t suggest he needed much time to reacclimatize himself to the speed of the game, Cauley-Stein did acknowledge being a little out-of-shape.

“My lungs feel rusty,” he said with a laugh. “I was winded a little bit, but once I get back running in basketball shape, I’ll be good.”

Cauley-Stein’s performance was part of a balanced scoring attack for the Wildcats, who shot 61.4 percent in the game, marking the third time this season they topped the 60 percent mark.

Senior guard Julius Mays led the way with 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting. Freshman guard Archie Goodwinadded 13 points, and sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow made all six of his field goal attempts for 12 points.

Freshman forward Nerlens Noel tallied his fourth double-double of the season with 10 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.

Not everything was rosy for the Cats though. Calipari took issue with the team’s 17 turnovers — one game after turning the ball over 19 times at Texas A&M — which led to 16 points for South Carolina.

“Seventeen turnovers and (they) didn’t press,” he said. “Come on, we work on the same stuff ever day. Get tougher. Get stronger with the ball. Do the things you do well.”

He also took issue with intensity level once again, noting that he had to insert Cauley-Stein into the lineup and move Goodwin to point guard at times to be more aggressive.

Calipari acknowledged he’s making an effort to back off his coaching intensity when players aren’t matching the effort level he hopes for.

“I’m just going to coach basketball,” he said. “I don’t want to coach emotion. I don’t want to coach intensity. I don’t want to coach toughness. If you have no toughness, I’m not going to get it out of you, and I’m just going to coach strategy.”

At least for one night, Calipari didn’t have to worry about coaching effort from Cauley-Stein.

His teammates noticed the difference the seven-footer made.

“He brings a lot of energy,” Harrow said. “He’s going to run the floor. He’s going to play defense hard. When he has his offensive game going, it makes it a lot easier for all of us.”

“Tonight, him playing the way he did changed the whole game,” Mays noted.

For his part, Cauley-Stein says he’s still adjusting to playing without the pain of his knee injury, which he described as “some loose piece” that would move around when he was not wearing a protective sleeve.

As he works to overcome that mental hurdle, Cauley-Stein hopes to continue to bring his energy and enthusiasm to the team. He thinks the effort level is contagious.

“Piece by piece, it’s spreading out to other people,” he said. “ is starting to play really well, and he’s going extremely hard in practice. I’m picking up from what Kyle’s doing. And eventually, everybody’s going to be playing like that. It’s just a matter of time when people start figuring out that’s how we need to play to take this to a whole other level.”

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Written by Jon Hale

Photo: Willie Cauley-Stein/Jon Hale