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February 9, 2013

Kentucky adjusts to physical play in 72-62 win

Willie Cauley-Stein went hard down the lane, took a hit from Auburn's Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and finished, setting up a chance for a three-point play.

The Rupp Arena crowd roared. Cauley-Stein's teammates celebrated. But it wasn't exactly the brand of basketball the Wildcats' freshman forward had in mind.

Sure, he was happy that Kentucky gutted out a 72-62 win against the Tigers on Saturday, happy that his team won its fifth straight game and overcame Auburn's rugged, physical play.

But given his options, Cauley-Stein - who finished with 12 points and four rebounds - would play another way.

"It's not that fun," Cauley-Stein said. "You don't get to do anything, you just - you get grind points. It's more fun jumping through the air and dunking on people."

Those days may be behind the Wildcats (17-6, 8-2 Southeastern Conference). Auburn (9-14, 3-7) wasn't the first team to get physical with Kentucky, and it certainly won't be the last.

Physical play is here to stay. John Calipari knows his team will have to endure it to learn to neutralize it. On Saturday, the Cats did that.

"I told the guys after, we fought through," Calipari said.

He wishes they had to do it less.

Calipari has long been a proponent of a crackdown on physical play in college basketball. On Saturday, he admitted he's "maybe being a little self-serving" because "I always have a young team that they're trying to beat up."

But Calipari wants the physical play cleaned up. And he has a plan for how the NCAA can do it.

"Call the fouls," he said. "Call the fouls. Call the fouls. Call them all. Sixty, 70, call them all. Call them on us."

For a while on Saturday, the officials tried. Kentucky was whistled for 21 fouls. Auburn was hit with 29. The Wildcats shot 38 free throws to the Tigers' 17. Auburn coach Tony Barbee said his game plan was "to compete," but it looked like the Tigers came into the game intending to be physical.

Cauley-Stein described the Tigers' play as "real cheap," but said it's the same aggressive, rough approach that every opponent is taking with Kentucky.

"You're coming off a screen and they're holding your jersey," Cauley-Stein said. "Or you're going for a rebound and they kind of hold you down so you can't use your athleticism. Everybody plays like that. Everybody plays us like that."

Twice, though, Saturday's game escalated beyond typical physical play.

On one first-half play, Kentucky's Archie Goodwin appeared to push Auburn's Jordon Granger, who retaliated with an apparent punch. The two squared off before officials could separate them, and after the play was reviewed, Granger was hit with a flagrant foul and an ejection. Goodwin was assessed a personal foul and an unsportsmanlike technical foul.

On a second-half breakaway, Auburn's Frankie Sullivan was called for a flagrant foul on UK's Kyle Wiltjer.

"I thought our guys played a clean game," Barbee said.

Cauley-Stein didn't entirely disagree. He noted that Goodwin initiated the contact on Granger and said, "If somebody did that to us, if you got pushed, you're going to swing on them too. That's how the game is."

It comes from a desire to win, Cauley-Stein said, granting that physical play is the logical approach to take in dealing with Kentucky.

"That's how it is every year here," Cauley-Stein said. "We get really talented players and it just kind of, you know, evens out the playing field. They're not going to let you use your athleticism more. They're going to take away whatever you're good at. And that's what they do. We happen to be a really athletic team, fast. They hold you so you can't outrun them. Or they hold you down so you can't outjump them."

If Auburn was trying to close that talent gap with physical play on Saturday, it worked, at least for a while. The Tigers were within six at halftime and Kentucky's largest lead of 16 points came late in the game.

Over time, though, Kentucky adjusted to the Tigers' style.

"If they want to double down, be physical, we just gotta kick it out for a three," said forward Nerlens Noel, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. "It messes them all up when they play that hard and get that chippy and we just knock down a three. Kyle, Julius (Mays), just kick it out to them and it really just gets them all mixed up."

UK shot just 6-for-21 from three-point range, but had some timely deep balls, including one from Wiltjer at the 10:30 mark of the second half that gave the Cats their first double-digit lead, 54-42.

The Tigers never got closer than 10 the rest of the way.

Auburn's Noel Johnson said being physical "wasn't part of our game plan," and teammate Chris Denson said that while the officials might have seen it otherwise, the Tigers "weren't trying to flagrant foul them on purpose."

But Kentucky saw a physical approach from the Tigers.

And though it's not the Cats' preferred brand of basketball, but they're getting used to it.

"That's what we've been going through all year, really, just teams trying to be physical," Noel said. "All it's doing is just getting us better, just helping us use it to our advantage."


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