The Wildcats were up to the challenge in a 72-62 win versus Auburn.
“They was playing real cheap, but that’s every game,” said freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein. “Every game’s going to be like that from here on out, especially when it’s getting to tournament time.
“Everyone wants to win. You got to do what you got to do to win. For us, we’ve just got to keep on playing through it and grind it out and do what coaches say and come up with the win.”
UK head coach John Calipari opened his post-game news conference by praising the strategy designed by Auburn coach and Calipari protege Tony Barbee.
“Tony Barbee came in with an unbelievable game plan,” Calipari said. “Tony is not a good coach, he is a great coach.”
Barbee’s game plan seemed to center on being as physical as possible against the young Cats, though he would just say it was to “be competitive.”
The physical nature of the game appeared to get out of hand with 1:12 remaining in the first half when UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin pushed off Auburn forward Jordan Granger with a forearm to the back of the neck while both players tried to rebound a free throw.
Granger then threw a punch at Goodwin, and the two players had to be separated by officials. After a long stoppage in play while the officials reviewed the altercation, Granger was assessed a flagrant two foul and ejected. Goodwin was assessed both a personal foul and a technical foul but was allowed to remain in the game.
When play resumed after halftime, the officials appeared to try to use their whistle to retake control of the contest, calling a total of 30 fouls in the second half.
Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan was also given a flagrant foul when he brought down UK sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer on a fast-break in the second half.
While the game came close to getting out of hand, afterward Cauley-Stein downplayed the significance of the two flagrant fouls called against Auburn.
“On film, you see Archie pushing first,” he said of the first-half altercation. “So, it’s another retaliation thing. If somebody did that to us, if you got pushed, you’re going to swing on them too. That’s how the game is. You got that mindset.”
The Cats were able to take advantage of the way the game was being called in the second-half to put it out of reach.
Ryan Harrow evades a defender before making a circus shot in the first half. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Auburn actually made two more field goals (22 to 20) and one more three-pointer (seven to six) than UK, but a 26-to-11 advantage in made free throws gave the Cats the win.
In fact, UK’s struggles at the free throw line, where they made just 68.4 percent of their shots in the game, helped keep the score as close as it was.
Both Auburn big men, Rob Cubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, fouled out in the game.
According to Calipari, UK’s ability to match Auburn’s intensity and physicality game from two bench players: Cauley-Stein and junior guard Jarrod Polson.
“We’re so happy with Jarrod, so happy with Willie, and it was nothing but energy,” he said. “That’s all it is. Just come out and ball. Quit worrying about how you’re playing for yourself, worry about our team and just bring energy.”
“Me and Willie always talk about it. We just try to bring energy,” Polson said. “We’re coming off the bench. I don’t know, we’re just kind of like that – both like to dive on the floor and stuff. We just like to do it.”
Calipari’s message of the week has been that he’s looking outside of basketball to teach life lessons to his players. When they learn those lessons, he hopes they can translate them to the court.
Having players focus on the team’s perspective instead of their individual performances has been chief among those lessons.
Even Cauley-Stein, who Calipari lauded for his energy and performance, says the Cats are still trying to figure out exactly what Calipari means when he talks about players loving each other more.
“I think he’s talking about a different love, because I love my teammates and everybody loves each other,” he said. “People say that they don’t see it on the court and everybody’s saying one player is into their own self, but in a sense every player is into their own selves. You’re worried about your stats too, but you’re going to worry about it in a different way.”
Even if this team is able to continue winning games while not quite meeting Calipari’s expectations, the Wildcats’ coach cautions that players will not be fulfilled by their success.
Wins like Saturday’s are nice, but he has bigger things in mind for them.
“I’m trying to help them understand what joy is, and the last part of joy is a group of us come together and do something special, and we’re just higgling each other because we knew we did it together and everybody’s part was important,” he said. “That joy that my other teams have felt, unless they change, they’re not going to feel that joy.
“We may win, and we may go and do some special things, (but) you’ll never feel that joy. You won’t. That’s my challenge.”