NASHVILLE, Tenn. - All season long, John Calipari has preached to his young Kentucky team that the Southeastern Conference is no joke, that the Wildcats were in for challenges every night in the league.
So you can imagine Willie Cauley-Stein's confusion Thursday night as the Cats built a 16-point second-half lead against Vanderbilt at magical Memorial Gym.
"We was up so much, as a freshman I was thinking, 'Whoa, this is not what coach was saying,'" Cauley-Stein said. "Just like that, it turns around and we're down by one. All the sudden, I'm like 'Dang, we've got to dig down and try to pull this out.'"
And it took some serious pulling for Kentucky to pull out a 60-58 win, hard-earned and won only when Vandy's Kedren Johnson - who led all scorers with 19 points Thursday - missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
The Wildcats (10-4, 1-0 SEC) withstood an 18-0 Vanderbilt run in the second half, a stretch during which UK missed 11 shots. The Cats missed 12 straight overall, going a second-half stretch of 8:38 without a made field goal.
"We started making shots," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "We kept getting shots."
And they kept making effort plays.
The Commodores (6-7, 0-1) entered the game as the SEC's worst rebounding team, with an average margin of -2.3, and averaging a league-worst 9.2 offensive rebounds per game. They outrebounded UK 42-37 and had 20 offensive rebounds.
"They outworked us," Calipari said. "They beat us to 50-50 balls, they beat us to rebounds. We were lucky to win the game."
Fortune favored the Cats in the final minutes. With 17.3 seconds to play, Nerlens Noel threw up an answered prayer that gave UK a 60-55 lead but appeared to come after the shot clock expired - a play that can't be reviewed in college basketball.
"That was good," point guard Ryan Harrow said with a hint of a grin. "Way before the clock went off."
Johnson's three-pointer with 7.6 seconds to play pulled Vandy to within two, and after a UK turnover on the inbounds pass, a mad scramble against a rare UK zone led to Johnson misfiring just before the final buzzer.
It wasn't Kentucky's finest hour.
But it was a win.
"I'm happy we won," Calipari said. "You got to understand guys, I've been doing this 20-something years. When we win, I'm happy. When we lose, I'm devastated. We won."
Still, he didn't seem happy, exactly.
Calipari lamented his team's tentative play against Vanderbilt's zone defense, called out Kyle Wiltjer's lack of defensive aptitude and once again criticized forward Alex Poythress for being outworked.
After a month at "Camp Cal" - practices designed to get Kentucky physically and mentally tougher - the Cats' work ethic seemed particularly irksome.
"Again, that's what a big emphasis on the last month and a half was: looking at the next guy that you're guarding and saying 'You're not going to play harder than me,'" Cauley-Stein said. "Today I feel like, personally myself, at times I let the kid play harder than me. That's what we've been trying to fix the whole time this year."
But Calipari found some positives, both in the way his team built a first-half lead and in the way it finished down the stretch, when it got a crucial three-pointer from Harrow (who led the Cats with 16 points) two key free throws from Poythress and important plays at both ends from Noel.
"I'm telling you, for 25 minutes, I'm saying, 'This is what we want to look like,'" Calipari said. "We went nine minutes without scoring, which put us in the position we were in. And had a couple breakdowns, but it's typical freshman stuff. But we're out there with four freshmen and a sophomore most of the game."