LEXINGTON, Ky. – Willie Cauley-Stein played the starring role in Kentucky’s milestone 500th victory at Rupp Arena, scoring 15 points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking seven shots to lead the Wildcats to an 81-63 win over Eastern Michigan in the finale of the Keightley Classic.
The sophomore center did so in 25 minutes off the bench, a performance befitting a starter.
“He was going to start today. (Assistant ocach) John Robic screwed with that,” UK head coach John Calipari said with a laugh. “When I sat down (for the final pregame discussion), Marcus Lee was there. I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Robic said, ‘I put him in the lineup.’ I said, ‘You weren't at the shoot-around today? What were you thinking about?’ Willie, he was going to start today.
“He'll start from here.”
It makes no difference, Cauley-Stein said. He’s happy to play whatever role the UK boss sees fit.
“I have been playing good off of the bench, but it’s either way,” he said. “It doesn’t really bother me if I don’t (start). If I do, hooray. If I don’t, then I can just come off the bench.”
When Cauley-Stein checked in just moments after tip-off, the 7-footer from Kansas injected some much-needed energy to the UK lineup. He played even better as the starter in the second half, helping the No. 3 Wildcats gradually pull away from a 35-32 advantage at the break.
“Willie is playing well,” Calipari said. “He still faded away on a couple shots that he didn't need to. The good news is he's really confident in himself shooting free throws now. That makes a big difference in how you play because now you'll be aggressive and try and score because you're not afraid to get fouled.”
Cauley-Stein went 6-of-12 from the field, setting a new season high for attempts. He was only 3-for-7 at the foul line, but looked more comfortable there after struggling early in the season.
Kentucky (6-1) also got 22 points from freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who hit a trio of 3-pointers and knocked down 9 of 11 free throws on the day. Freshman forward Julius Randle added 14 points and 10 rebounds, tying Jim Andrews’ school record with a seventh-consecutive double-double to open a season. The 6-9 Texas product did almost all of his damage in the second half after being held to no points and one rebound in the first half, largely due to picking up two quick fouls.
“I had bad rhythm,” Randle said. “I got into foul trouble. I didn’t get to the necessary spots in the first half. Second half, I ran the floor a lot better. I took advantage of the opportunities I had.”
The Wildcats held Eastern Michigan to 3-for-15 shooting and forced four turnovers in the first seven minutes of the second half to open a comfortable lead at 51-38.
The lead grew to as many as 21 down the stretch as UK used its size advantage to outrebound the Eagles 52-33 and foul out a pair of opponents. Eastern Michigan was tagged with 31 fouls on the day leading to 40 free throws for the Cats.
“I give Kentucky a lot of credit,” Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy said. “They play pretty good defense, and their size got the best of us.
"Our guards drove, and as opposed to making the extra pass or making a drop-down pass for a finish, we were trying to shoot over trees, so to speak. They got their shots blocked a couple of times, and any time that happens early in a game then guys begin to think. I think it happened to Karrington (Ward) and Ray (Lee) early, and they never got that out of their minds.”
The Eagles’ two leading scorers on the season at close to 18 points per game were held to five and two points, respectively, on 3-for-18 shooting. Kentucky held EMU to 36 percent (24 of 66) for the game and blocked nine shots.
Darell Combs led Eastern Michigan (5-1) with 23 points.
Dakari Johnson gave UK a fourth scorer in double figures with 10 points off the bench. He also grabbed seven rebounds in only 10 minutes of action.
• Kentucky improved to 2-0 all-time against Eastern Michigan and to 47-6 all-time against teams from the Mid-American Conference.
• The Wildcats are now 500-62 over 38 seasons at Rupp Arena, winning 89 percent of their games on the home floor. UK's first win in the facility, 72-64 over Wisconsin, came on the same date in 1976.
• UK has now hit over 71 percent at the free throw line in four straight games.
• Kentucky now heads to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., to take on Providence on Sun. Dec. 1. Game time is 8:30 p.m. ET and will be televised on Fox Sports 1.