GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- What has frustrated Kentucky players most about their three losses is that the games could've gone the other way had they executed fundamentals at critical moments.
As a result, the No. 19 Wildcats (8-3) have spent this week brushing up on defense, free throw shooting and even attitude after letting things slip away at No. 14 North Carolina.
Freshman guard Andrew Harrison says the team now has "a chip on our shoulders," which coach John Calipari hopes will result in victory when the Wildcats host Belmont on Saturday. The Bruins (8-4) have lost three of four but upset the same Tar Heels squad that beat Kentucky last weekend.
That fact challenges the Wildcats to do the basics against Belmont, another team that could make them pay if they don't change.
Calipari said Thursday that for his young team, it's about closing out "the last three, four minutes of the game. It's something we've had to do here every year that I've been here. We are really narrowing it to what you do and what you absolutely don't do.
"Their instincts are now for them, not us. We have to be a little bit more organized. There are things that we did where I said we are getting better, and there are other things where I watch the tape and I say we are not getting better. We reverted on some things. It's a process."
Despite allowing North Carolina to shoot 57 percent from the field in the second half, Kentucky was still just a possession or two away from taking the lead. The Wildcats couldn't break through, either because of a failed defensive stop or an offensive miscue.
Kentucky's most glaring statistical failures were 14 missed free throws and 17 turnovers, leading to its second loss in three games. Losing to a third ranked opponent is no consolation for the Wildcats, especially since the game was within their reach.
"It's a big problem that has to be solved," sophomore 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said about Kentucky's crunch-time struggles. "There's no sugar-coating it. We were ranked too. ... When it comes down to it, you got to be able to finish out a game."
The loss provided another example of body language that Calipari has suggested that players are thinking more about individual effort than team play. The coach said that happens with young players' mindsets adjusting to college after being the focal point in high school.
Compounding Kentucky's challenge is having six All-Americans in its heralded eight-man freshman group. Facial grimaces and hung heads have sometimes followed missed shots and foul calls, expressions that Harrison concedes need to change.
"Any player is disappointed when they don't do something great," he said, "but at the same time it's not about you or any individual, it's about the team. That's how you have to handle it."
Between final examinations this week the Wildcats have been working on playing through on defense, from boxing out to making sure they back up big men such as Cauley-Stein and 6-9 Julius Randle on rebounds.
Kentucky must execute in all areas against Belmont, which is in the midst of a tough December like the Wildcats. The defending Ohio Valley Conference champions are coming off Tuesday night's 90-62 loss at WAC champion Denver, their fourth without starting point guard Reece Chamberlain (10.9 points per game).
Belmont still has plenty of scoring in guards J.J. Mann (17.7 points) and Craig Bradshaw (12.5) and forward Drew Windler (12.3). The Bruins' strong perimeter games in particular puts the Wildcats on notice to defend many things -- and more importantly, at all times to close the deal.
The message seems to be getting through after Kentucky's latest what-if.
"Cal's going to get it out of us either way, so we can either fight it and be miserable," Cauley-Stein said. "It's still going to get done, just in a longer time, or (we) accept the fact that we're wrong and learn and build off of it."
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