LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Purple Cobras may have given the Big Blue its biggest lift of a season that appeared to be spiraling out of control.
In dire need of a light-hearted exercise to get the Wildcats’ minds off a 30-point loss to Tennessee and Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury, Kentucky coach John Calipari turned to old-school playground staple dodgeball as a remedy to UK’s sour mood.
Perhaps borrowing from the 2004 movie in which Vince Vaughn’s “Average Joes” misfits overcome Ben Stiller’s stacked “Purple Cobras” squad, the Wildcats began working on their own underdog story Wednesday with a 74-70 win over Vanderbilt as a nation of basketball observers were poised to write off the defending champs.
Afterward, the UK boss credited Tuesday’s dodgeball match, pitting the coaching staff against the players, for helping set the tone for a feel-good game.
“I had to put a helmet on, if you understand why,” Calipari said. “… I knew they are down there huddling saying, ‘Let's just all throw at Coach.’ And I'm like, you say when you want. There's a couple of you I want to throw at, too.
“We just were talking, what can we do? We've got to lighten this mood up. These guys are (playing) with the weight of the world on their shoulders. let's do something. We're going to play wiffleball Friday. I promise they will lose Friday.”
Playing much looser than it has displayed in recent weeks, Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 SEC) got a career-high 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots from freshman center Cauley-Stein, who has stepped into the starting role for Noel. He made eight of 10 shots from the floor and had two big Noel-like rejections inside the final minute of play to help the Wildcats hang on for the win.
“It was fun,” Cauley-Stein said of the dodgeball match. “But (Calipari) was out before I could even throw at him. (Laughs)
“I think since Nerlens got hurt we were all feeling down from losing to Florida and getting smacked at Tennessee. Everybody’s spirits were down in practice. We were trying to be real peppy, but you still had that feeling and that taste in your mouth. It was nasty. It was a bad environment. So when he came out and said dodgeball, it was like, ‘Oh, this kind of like childhood again. This is fun.’”
Also getting in on the fun against Vanderbilt were freshman guard Archie Goodwin and sophomore guard Ryan Harrow. The backcourt mates have struggled of late, especially Harrow, who was scoreless against both Florida and Tennesse. But on this night, Goodwin posted 16 points and Harrow added 12 for the Cats.
Senior guard Julius Mays chipped in with nine points, six rebounds and six assists in a well-rounded effort for UK, which shot 52 percent from the field and committed only seven turnovers.
Julius Mays had a well-rounded performance in UK’s win with 9 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. (KyScout photo by Jeff Drummond)
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was not pleased with the defensive effort by the Commodores, especially on Cauley-Stein, who came into the game averaging 7.5 points per game.
“The difference in this game was our inability to guard them off the dribble and the play of their big guy inside,” he said. “We just weren’t as good defensively tonight as we have been… We gave up 20 to a guy who’s not averaging 20, and that usually gets you beat.”
Vanderbilt (10-15, 4-9 SEC) entered the game with the league’s fourth-best defensive unit, allowing only 60.3 points per game. UK was only the third SEC opponent, joining Ole Miss and Missouri, to top the 70-point mark against the Commodores.
Kentucky never trailed after taking an 8-6 lead early in the game, but could not manage to put Vanderbilt away, either. The Wildcats’ biggest lead was 14, and most of the second half saw the margin hover around the eight-point mark.
The Commodores inched within 61-59 with 3:53 remaining, but UK got a big 3-point shot from Mays to recapture some breathing room. A dunk moments later by Cauley-Stein on a lob from Mays made it 66-60 with 2:11 to go.
Vanderbilt wasn’t ready to wilt, though. A jumper by Josh Henderson and a 3-pointer by Kyle Fuller made 68-65 at the 1:10 mark. Two free throws by Goodwin gave UK another two-possession lead, and blocked shots by Cauley-Stein on the next two Commodore possessions essentially sealed the victory.
Asked if felt better about his 20 points or the two blocked shots in the final minute of play, Cauley-Stein did not hesitate.
“The two big blocks because even our coaches were saying you don’t have to block shots and take up for Nerlens,” he said.
* Kentucky leads the series 138-45. UK leads 77-14 in games played in Lexington.
* The Wildcats are 9-0 this season when shooting 50 percent or better from the field. UK is also 9-0 when Harrow records at least four assists.
* Kedren Johnson led the Commodores with 17 points. Rod Odom added 16, but only two of those game after halftime. Fuller and Henderson added 14 and 13, respectively, for Vanderbilt.
* Kentucky continues its three-game homestand Saturday as the Wildcats play host to Missouri and ESPN GameDay. The game is set for a 9 p.m. ET start.