Cauley-Stein breaks out of funk in Wildcats’ win

Willie Cauley-Stein scored 18 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in Kentucky's win on Tuesday. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Willie Cauley-Stein scored 18 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in Kentucky’s win on Tuesday. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

By Gary B. Graves

AP Sports Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Willie Cauley-Stein seemed to be emerging from his slump a couple of games ago before slipping back over the next two contests and realizing that he might have been trying too hard.

Kentucky’s 7-foot sophomore came out more relaxed Tuesday night and produced an impressive effort reminiscent of his dominant first half of the season, one he hopes to perform consistently from now on.

Cauley-Stein broke out of his skid with 18 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 18 Kentucky shot 60 percent in the second half for an 80-64 victory over Ole Miss.

Cauley-Stein came off the bench and went 7 of 8 from the field to score more points than his previous six games combined (14) while reaching double digits in rebounds for the first time in nine games. Cauley-Stein had six blocks and altered other attempts to help limit the Rebels (15-7, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) to 36 percent shooting in the second half and 39 percent (25 of 65) overall.

The Kansas native’s moment of truth followed Kentucky’s win at Missouri on Saturday, when four fouls limited him to just 7 minutes, without a point or a rebound before family and friends.

“I was so mad because I was back home and had my family there and really wanted to play good,” Cauley-Stein said, “and that’s what was getting me in trouble. I wanted to play so good, I was getting antsy and you could see that my timing was off with blocks and I was just fouling people.

“This game, I was just going to play more relaxed and just do what I know how to do and everything else would take care of itself.”

Kentucky (17-5, 7-2) certainly took care of things in the second half, making 15 of 25 from the field to turn a 35-34 halftime lead into a rout and earn their second consecutive victory.

Aaron Harrison added 16 points while Julius Randle scored 11 of his 12 points after halftime as the Wildcats finished shooting 51 percent (26 of 51) from the field.

James Young and Alex Poythress had 10 points each for Kentucky, which outscored Ole Miss 44-24 in the paint and 19-15 in second-chance points while its reserves topped the Rebels’ 28-19. The Wildcats outrebounded the Rebels 41-26 and blocked 12 shots, with Cauley-Stein setting the tone.

“He really took over in the second half,” Aaron Harrison said of his teammate. “He’s been in a little slump, but we all knew he would get out of it. He came out of it tonight.”

Ole Miss guards Marshall Henderson (16 points) and Jarvis Summers combined for 27 points on just 10-of-31 shooting in a matchup of second-place SEC teams. The Rebels get another shot at the Wildcats in two weeks in Oxford, where they hope to play better than in the final 20 minutes on Tuesday night.

Then again, Kentucky didn’t allow Ole Miss to do much, switching everybody on defense and creating moments where its big men were guarding smaller Rebels – who couldn’t get over or around them. Offensively, it was no contest as the Wildcats took over inside.

“The second half, their length really bothered us and we couldn’t stop them,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We shot 41 percent in the first half (and) hold them to around 42 (percent). In the second half, they only missed 10 field goals and a couple of those were right around the rim.”

A Rupp Arena crowd of 22,168 that braved freezing rain did their part trying to rattle Henderson, who started 0 for 2 from the field before scoring eight points over 41⁄2 minutes, including consecutive 3-pointers, for a 28-23 lead that forced a Kentucky timeout with 6:55 left. While the Wildcats rallied for a 35-34 halftime lead, this game was even in many areas.

It quickly tilted Kentucky’s way as Randle overcame a 1-point, 1-rebound half by finding his game, highlighted by an impressive rebound and court-length drive for a dunk and a 50-41 lead with 15:06 left Poythress’ basket two minutes later provided Kentucky’s first double-digit lead of the game that eventually reached 19 with 3 minutes left.

“I felt like the team played good everywhere, all across the board,” Poythress said. “I thought it was a great team win.”