LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The difference between the crisis Kentucky faced on Saturday against Belmont compared to one a week ago was that the Wildcats made adjustments and kept control of the outcome.
Those tasks are easier to achieve if the ball is in Julius Randle's able hands.
Randle scored a career-high 29 points, including 15 during a second-half rally that pushed No. 19 Kentucky past stubborn Belmont 93-80.
A week after a season-worst performance in a loss at North Carolina, the 6-foot-9 freshman forward was 8 of 10 from the field, made 13 of 19 free throws and grabbed 10 rebounds. More importantly, he asserted himself late in the first half and throughout the second for the Wildcats (9-3), who found themselves in a battle against the team that upset the Tar Heels earlier this season.
"He was a beast today," reserve guard Jarrod Polson said of Randle. "He really helped us out a lot. He really got us through the first half with rebounds and putbacks and things like that."
Kentucky trailed until the 16:21 mark of the second half and constantly had to fight off challenges from the Bruins (8-5). Though Randle led the way, other Wildcats supported him.
Aaron Harrison added 23 points for Kentucky while 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein had 16 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. The bench contributed just 12 points but Polson, Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins brought energy that rescued the Wildcats from a 25-14 deficit.
The Wildcats finished 32 of 58 from the field (55 percent), outrebounded the Bruins 42-25 and made 26 of 36 free throws.
Craig Bradshaw had 22 points while Drew Windler added 21 on five 3-pointers for the Bruins, who shot 47 percent from the field and were 11 of 30 from behind the arc but still lost their third straight and fourth in five.
"We still have things we've got to get better at," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "But we fought like heck. It's a hard team to play. They're going to shoot 30 3s. If they're making them, you lose. They make 14 against us, we probably lose. We guarded it well enough and kind of got into their legs a little bit."
Kentucky's week spent working on defense, free throw shooting and body language yielded some results as the Wildcats came up with timely stops and rebounds in the second half. While better free throw shooting was also critical in the outcome, their improved engagement made the biggest difference and helped them outscore the Bruins 52-34 in the paint.
Randle, among many Wildcats visibly frustrated by their individual play against the Tar Heels, made sure teammates followed a positive lead this time.
"Coach wants us to bring energy to the team, so if we see a guy with his head down, we're checking ourselves," he said. "We're not doing that because bad calls are going to happen, we're going to make bad plays and we're going to make mistakes. You have to continue to have great body language and play hard."
Kentucky certainly needed all those areas to overcome and withstand Belmont.
The Bruins weren't awed by playing before 24,224 at Rupp Arena. They were coming off Tuesday night's 28-point loss at Denver that marked the low point since that signature win over the Tar Heels.
Belmont played the recent losing stretch without injured point guard Reece Chamberlain, whose return to the starting lineup restored normalcy and something of a swagger as the Bruins led 43-41 at halftime. Windler opened the game with consecutive 3-pointers and had four of the Bruins' seven long-range baskets in the half.
The Bruins led by 11 before Poythress (seven points), Polson (three) and Hawkins (two) combined scoring and hustle to help the Wildcats claw back. They were most helpful in getting the ball to Randle and Cauley-Stein, whose seven combined points provided a 41-41 tie with 25 seconds left in the half before Belmont re-took the lead on Windler's free throws.
Within 3 1/2 minutes into the second half Kentucky was ahead 50-48 on Aaron Harrison's layup en route to a 25-14 run in which he and Randle combined for 19 points.
"The big difference in the game was Randle," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "I don't know if I can find many games where a guy gets 3 1-2-times the amount of points (to) shots he took. We couldn't stop him from making it except by fouling him."
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