LEXINGTON — After taking an unexpected hiatus Willie Cauley-Stein was simply happy to be back on the court.
“It was a lot of fun just to be able to run again,” Cauley-Stein said after scoring 13 points in the Wildcats' 77-55 victory over South Carolina Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. “For two weeks I couldn't run as hard as I could. That's what I do is run and it was fun being back out there with the guys and to be doing what I like to do.”
It was Cauley-Stein's most extensive action since missing four games following minor knee surgery last month. The freshman center played 22 minutes against the Gamecocks and came within one point shy of establishing a new career high. He played four minutes in Kentucky's 72-68 win at Texas A&M last weekend but tripled that output against the Gamecocks.
Kentucky coach John Calipari liked Cauley-Stein's offensive production against the Gamecocks but was more pleased with the excitement he brought to the floor.
“Willie Cauley-Stein was unbelievable,” Calipari said. “He just added energy.”
It was the boost the Cats needed and one Cauley-Stein yearned for since the injury, giving him much-needed confidence moving forward.
“It just boosts your confidence and that's a lot of the game,” he said. “Then you start seeing things that you see yourself (capable) doing and then it becomes first nature to you. You keep doing it over and over again and the next thing you know it's part of your game.”
Cauley-Stein said the injury, which chipped off a piece of his knee cap, occurred when he was playing middle school football. The bone chip was discovered when he was undergoing an x-ray for another “pain I was having.”
“It never really hurt but it just swelled up really badly and I still played on it,” he said. “It wasn't bad enough that I had to quit playing.”
While rehabilitating the knee, Cauley-Stein missed three of Kentucky's four road games and spent time with his mom and also read a book entitled “God never blinks.”
Despite having a stable support system, Cauley-Stein wanted to be contributing to the team's success.
“It was awful,” Cauley-Stein said. “There were times when I got down on myself. Having my girlfriend, her mom and my mom (in Lexington) helped calm me down. Those two weeks felt like a year. I missed four games and I didn't feel like I was going to be the same player anymore. There was a lot of negative stuff and coach Cal had us read this book and it got me thinking in my mind that everything was going to be fine.”
As it turned out, it was fine, especially against South Carolina.
“It felt really good to get back out there and picking up where I left off,” Cauley-Stein said. “I just went out there and played hard. It was good to be back with my team and doing things that we wee doing before.”
Cauley-Stein admitted that he was a “little rusty” following the four-game layoff. During the rehabilitation process, Cauley-Stein lifted weights, ran in the pool and “did a lot of upper body stuff.”
“My lungs feel rusty and I was winded a little bit,” he said. “Once I get back into basketball shape, I should be good. Now I've got to think to myself that it's not going to come back anymore so I can just play.”
He began the road to full recovery Tuesday night.