Cats cheat death, avoid Viking funeral

Kentucky battled back from a 10-point deficit with under eight minutes to play and closed with a 24-7 run Monday night to hold off Cleveland State's upset bid at Rupp Arena.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – As college basketball's all-time wins leader, Kentucky makes it hard for opponents to muster too much sympathy for the Wildcats on a bad night.

But that's just what Cleveland State coach Gary Waters offered to UK coach John Calipari after flirting with an upset of the No. 3 Wildcats on Monday night at Rupp Arena.

"I thought Kentucky did a great job coming back, fighting back," Waters said after watching the Cats close the game with a 24-7 run to erase a double-figure deficit and post a 68-61 win. "I whispered into Calipari's ear… ‘Hey, you needed this more than I needed it.'

"I felt bad for our kids because I thought they put themselves in a position to win the game. We kind of faltered at the end… But I know it doesn't look good for us to beat Kentucky. And I know with these young kids, (Calipari) is trying to get their attention. When you're trying to do that, I'm a true believer that you don't have to lose to learn. He's trying to teach them some things, and he doesn't want to lose in order to get that done."

Asked if sometimes there was merit in learning lessons through a loss, Calipari said: "I'd rather it be a close win. But sometimes it comes to a point, you got no choice, you got to take an L. I think, again, close wins are better learning experiences. I just hope they understand that you can't start games like we're starting them. You can't. You got to come out of the gate ready to go."

Cleveland State (3-3) led for all but about six minutes in the first half. The Vikings held a 31-27 advantage at the half and pushed the margin to 44-33 with 14:17 remaining.

Kentucky (5-1) survived thanks to some late heroics by its heralded freshmen. Trailing 54-44 with 7:41 to play, the Wildcats got a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays and three assists from point guard Andrew Harrison in perhaps his best stretch of play since arriving in Lexington. UK also got a 3-pointer from his twin brother, Aaron Harrison, as well as four points, four rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot from Julius Randle during that stretch.

Randle finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, his sixth consecutive double-double to begin his UK career. He is now just one game shy of the school record set by Jim Andrews to start the 1971-72 season.

Andrew Harrison shook off foul trouble to finish with 12 points and five assists with just one turnover. His three-point play on a driving layup with 2:08 remaining broke a 57-57 tie and gave the Cats the lead for good.

"I thought Andrew made the plays," Calipari said. "It's nice to know we got two or three guys now we can go to if the game is in the balance."

Aaron Harrison and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein also chipped in with 11 points apiece.

"This is a game we needed," Calipari added. "The question we all have is, ‘If you can play this way – down against Michigan State, down against Cleveland State – then play the way you just played. Why don't you start that way? Why won't you say, ‘That's going to be who we are, not just being down?''

Kentucky had an uncharacteristically-bad shooting night from the field (19 of 53, 36 percent) but came in above its norm at the free throw line, hitting 27 of 35 for 77 percent. The Cats hit eight of their final 10 at the line to seal the victory.

UK outrebounded an opponent for the sixth straight time to open the season, but the Vikings were the first to keep the margin under 12. The Cats finished with a 42-35 edge on the glass.

"They might be the best offensive rebounding team in the country," Waters said of the Cats, who pulled down 18 boards on that end leading to 17 second-chance points.

Cleveland State was led by guard Bryn Forbes with 22 points, including an 11-for-11 night at the free throw line. The Vikings also got 15 and 13 points, respectively, from guards Trey Lewis and Sebastian Douglas.

NOTES:

• Kentucky improved to 2-0 all-time against Cleveland State and 16-4 against teams from the Horizon League.

• The Wildcats improved to 77-3 under Calipari when allowing 63 or fewer points.

• UK completes the Keightley Classic on Wednesday as the Wildcats play host to Eastern Michigan. Game time is 4 p.m. ET on Fox Sports South.

Jeff Drummond has covered University of Kentucky sports for newspapers, magazines and online publications since 1988 and for FOX Sports since 2012. A Richmond, Ky., native, he currently resides in Lexington.

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