LEXINGTON, Ky. – The blond hair may still be missing, but the smile returned to Willie Cauley-Stein’s face Tuesday night as Kentucky dominated the interior en route to an 80-64 win over Ole Miss.
The No. 18 Wildcats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) got 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots from Cauley-Stein, who had been mired in a six-game personal slump. The sophomore center had only recorded only 14 points, 19 rebounds and nine blocks since January 11.
His breakout performance Tuesday was part of an impressive showing for all of Kentucky’s big men. The Wildcats had a 44-24 scoring advantage in the paint, out-rebounded the Rebels 41-26, and blocked 12 shots in a battle for sole possession of second place in the league standings. Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3 SEC) was held to 39 percent from the floor, ending an unusual “streak” of two consecutive games with a UK opponent shooting better than 50 percent.
“I was watching film of myself last night on my defensive presence and trying to get my timing back on blocking shots and everything else,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was a difference-maker.”
“It was incredible,” said UK sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who added 10 points and seven rebounds of his own off the bench. “I was just so happy to see (Cauley-Stein) out of his little funk. Now, I hope he can sustain it for the next game.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said his 7-footer’s overall confidence level revolves around his mindset on the defensive end of the floor. When that’s present, the rest of his game tends to fall in place.
“We end up with 12 blocks because they just thought they could drive it, and that's what (Cauley-Stein) does,” Calipari said. “He had great defensive confidence. And there is such a thing as defensive confidence. He didn't have that at Missouri. He left early; he was antsy; he left his feet on 6-foot guys and fouled. But today he had it. I was really proud of him.”
The Cats led only 35-34 at halftime, but gradually pulled away in the second half. A 7-0 spurt helped give UK some breathing room, and it would lead by as many as 19 late in the game as Ole Miss found it increasingly difficult to find the mark offensively.
Kentucky got double-figure scoring from five players. In addition to Cauley-Stein and Poythress, the Wildcats also received 16 points from Aaron Harrison, 12 from Julius Randle and 10 from James Young. Andrew Harrison added nine points and five assists from his point guard spot while directing a UK offense that shot 51 percent from the floor and had only 10 turnovers.
“He's doing great,” Calipari said of his freshman point guard. “He's coming over to me and talking to me throughout the game… He's playing like a point guard. He's defending better. He's talking to his team.
“I think he made a statement to you guys that no one has ever criticized his game. Wow. Well, that has changed. But, you know, I think he's responding. I think he's getting better. Now he's just got to stay on the path.”
Ole Miss got 16 points from gunslinging senior guard Marshall Henderson, but that came on 6-for-18 shooting from the floor and fell three points under his season scoring average. The Cats also held Rebel guard Jarvis Summers to 4-for-13 shooting and 11 points, almost seven under his average.
“When they go 10-31, I think it’s a direct correlation with the length that Kentucky has,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who praised UK’s ability to constantly switch defenders without losing effectiveness. “We just couldn’t get clean looks over the top.
“(Cauley-Stein) was outstanding tonight… He’s most certainly a very capable player, and tonight his length was bothersome.”
• Kentucky improved to 101-13 all-time against Ole Miss. The Rebels have only two wins against the Wildcats in Lexington, one coming in 1927 and the other in 1998.
• The teams will face each other again in two weeks in Oxford, Miss.
• The Wildcats have won 22 consecutive home games, currently the nation’s fifth-longest active home streak.
• UK returns to action Saturday at Mississippi State in a 1:30 p.m. ET tip on SEC TV.