LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Willie Cauley-Stein made it clear that despite others' wishes for him to be like Nerlens Noel, he could only be himself on the court.
That declaration didn't stop the 7-foot Kentucky freshman from mimicking his shot-blocking teammate when he had to.
Cauley-Stein did just that in the final 34 seconds Wednesday night against Vanderbilt. He rejected two crucial shots 9 seconds apart to help the Wildcats outlast the Vanderbilt 74-70 and provide Kentucky's important first win without Noel, out for the season with a left-knee injury.
He also scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds — including a key one with 17 seconds remaining — but was most pleased with his blocks because "our coaches told us we do not have to block shots and don't have to take up for where Nerlens was at, just set charges and do the extra stuff." The 7-footer was eager to overachieve.
Cauley-Stein made 1 of 2 free throws for a 74-67 lead that offset Sheldon Jeter's 3 for Vanderbilt (10-15, 4-9) with 3 seconds remaining. Cauley-Stein finished 8 of 10 from the field and grabbed seven rebounds to provide Kentucky a sorely needed victory after the Wildcats were shellacked 88-58 Saturday at Tennessee in their first game since Noel sustained a season-ending left knee injury at Florida Feb. 12.
Noel's first public appearance since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament boosted the morale of the Wildcats, who had to withstand another Commodores rally.
Trailing 51-41 with 14:46 remaining, Vanderbilt's 18-10 run over the next 10-plus minutes got the Commodores within 61-59. Julius Mays answered with a 3-pointer to give Kentucky a five-point lead before Cauley-Stein added a basket leading up to his defensive heroics.
Archie Goodwin added 16 points and Ryan Harrow 12 for the Wildcats, whose controlled play throughout was a big improvement from Saturday.
Their big man supplying the biggest lift pleased Kentucky coach John Calipari, but didn't shock him.
"Willie has been out there enough to have demonstrated performance," Calipari said. "He demonstrated what he can do, which is going to help his confidence, there's no question."
Johnson had 17 points and Rod Odum 16 for Vanderbilt. Fuller added 14 and Henderson 13 for the Commodores, who made 10 of 22 (45.5 percent) from beyond the arc.
That still wasn't enough to overcome the Wildcats, who shot 29 of 56 overall and outscored Vanderbilt 38-24 in the paint.
Kentucky faced huge pressure to win for many reasons, mostly to atone for its embarrassing 88-58 loss to Tennessee, its first game without Noel. The general ugliness of that outing resulted in Calipari questioning the coachability of a couple of unnamed Wildcats before backtracking earlier this week.
"I've never played a worse game than that in my life," Cauley-Stein said. "And my teammates have never played a worse game in their life. It was like, you can only go up from here. Like, there's nowhere else to go down. You got to have the mindset that you're going somewhere."
The team did a lot of soul searching with a players-only meeting and talking with coaches, but the breakthrough seemed to come from a game of dodgeball Tuesday night in which the Wildcats took shots at their coach, who wore a helmet for obvious reasons.
"It was a chance for us to take a step back from basketball, relax and have fun as a team," Goodwin said. "That's what we did, it was just something for us to get together and it was a bonding moment for us."
Many hurdles remain for Kentucky before next month's SEC tournament, but this game showed the Wildcats' pride and composure. They didn't force shots and involved everybody on offense, and there were several times on defense that teammates battled for loose balls.
Most important, the Wildcats didn't give the Commodores an opening like the last meeting in Nashville on Jan. 10. Noel's controversial late basket helped Kentucky overcome blowing a 16-point lead and escape with a 60-58 win, and it demonstrated the luxury of having two big men.
Noel and Cauley-Stein combined for seven blocks that night, leaving Vanderbilt to try and offset things from the outside. Noel's injury eight days ago changed everything about Kentucky and especially inside, where 7-footer Cauley-Stein must provide the presence.
Facing a huge obstacle in Cauley-Stein, but nothing like the 6-10 Noel, Vanderbilt saw opportunities for a different outcome, especially after outrebounding the Wildcats 42-37 the first time around.
Kentucky wasn't having it, spotting Vanderbilt a 6-4 lead before taking control with efficiency that provided a 42-34 halftime lead. A 21-7 run over 8 minutes, 6 seconds sparked the Wildcats to a 25-13 lead and 19-of-31 shooting (61 percent) helped offset Odom's 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point range.
"I thought they played well offensively," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of Kentucky. "I thought they moved the ball well. They certainly put it on the floor and compromised our defense, especially the whole first half. If we don't guard well, we don't win."
The Wildcats' guard play also improved as Goodwin, Harrow and Mays combined for 10 assists with just one of Kentucky's three first-half turnovers. Cauley-Stein and Goodwin each scored 12 while Harrow added 10 as Kentucky outscored Vanderbilt 24-8 inside before halftime.
Besides his offensive re-emerging after two scoreless efforts, Harrow showed emotion and hustle. He yelled after driving for a layup and foul, then rebounded his missed free throw and fed Kyle Wiltjer for a 3-pointer and 42-30 lead.
"I was just more aggressive," said Harrow, who shot 6 of 9 in the game. "Coach told me he needed me to take shots because when I'm aggressive, everybody else is aggressive and the flow of the game is better."