John Calipari said Kentucky was lucky to escape Vanderbilt with a two-point victory.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Leave it to Ashley Judd to put what the University of Kentucky basketball team achieved during the Wildcats' 60-58 victory over Vanderbilt Thursday night in the perspective that matters for March:
"It's always nice to win the blowouts, but sometimes there's more value in winning the close ones. You learn how to win when things are going against you."
Check. Check. And then ultimately an extremely shaky checkmate.
Ahead 47-31 six minutes into the second half, Kentucky missed its next dozen shots. The Wildcats found themselves two points behind a dreadful Vanderbilt team with about six minutes to play. The mammoth gathering of UK fans, including Judd, were no longer the loudest voices in the house.
Memorial Gymnasium was shaking the way it used to shake when Shan Foster, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor walked through the door. And Vandy doesn't have anybody, not a single player, who could start for one of Kevin Stallings' top teams.
It was time for Kentucky to wobble the way the Wildcats wobbled at Notre Dame and Louisville, the first two times they played and lost on the road.
But this was a game that Kentucky could not lose. Not against Vandy. The Commodores have power ratings of 148 or worse from three different computer formulas.
This wouldn't be shrugged away the way a loss to Duke, Notre Dame or Louisville could be shrugged away. A loss would have resulted in a major drag on Kentucky's power ratings. Vanderbilt will not be a post-season team this year. This is a game that Kentucky could not lose. It would leave a stain on the Wildcats' resume in March.
In the end, that is what Kentucky did – the Wildcats failed to lose, surviving a missed Vanderbilt three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Wildcats made enough winning plays – a three-point shot by Ryan Harrow, two free throws by Alex Poythress, a couple of baskets by Nerlens Noel (one apparently after the shot clock expired) – to win by two against a Vanderbilt team that Marist beat by 17, Butler beat by 19 and Oregon drilled by 26.
The comparison game won't help Kentucky's power numbers, but it won't damage them either.
"Even though it was an ugly win, at least we came out with the win," UK point guard Ryan Harrow said.
Doesn't matter. As Coach Judd reminded, the Wildcats learned how to win when there were reasons for the Wildcats to lose. Now they must recover quickly and greet Texas A&M in Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon. With Tennessee scheduled to visit Lexington Tuesday night, the Wildcats are poised for a 3-0 start in the Southeastern Conference.
Of course, another coach, John Calipari, didn't sound as forgiving of his team's flaws. Calipari mentioned Vanderbilt's 20 offensive rebounds because he knows that Vanderbilt is easily the worst rebounding team in the Southeastern Conference. Those 20 offensive rebounds were four more than the Commodores had grabbed in any game this season.
"They outworked us," Calipari said. "They beat us to 50-50 balls. They beat us to long rebounds. We were lucky to win the game."
Calipari howled, several times, about Kyle Wiltjer's complete inability to guard anybody. Calipari only used Wiltjer 14 minutes because he became annoyed at the way Vanderbilt attacked him whenever he was on the court.
"Defensively, they went right at Kyle," Calipari said. "It didn't matter who I put Kyle on, they put Kyle in a pick-and-roll or iso(lation).
"I told Kyle, ‘If you can't play, every team is going to do that from here. Either we play zone, or you don't play. Or you figure it out.' I think in the first half, they had 24 points and I think 14 were on Kyle. No. No. We're not accepting that."
Wiltjer was not the only one who drew a post-game lecture – or time on the bench. Alex Poythress played 23 minutes and used his powerful 6-foot-7 body to grab no offensive rebounds. Calipari mentioned that a couple of times, too.
"Alex gets no offensive rebounds," Calipari said. "His guy (Shelby Moats) gets five. Now who's outworking who?
"I was very clear with Alex after the game. Nothing else you can do. Either you want to change, or you think you're OK. That kid outworked him – and I believe that kid is a freshman (actually a sophomore)."
It wasn't all lectures and scowls. Harrow scored 16 points and overcame a sharp elbow to the ribs that left him wheezing 20 minutes after the game. Noel had 13 points and seven rebounds. Goodwin finished with 12 points, even after missing all four of his three-point shots.
"We just wanted to get the win on the road and just take this as a learning experience," Harrow said.
And, as Ashley Judd knows, sometimes there is great value in that.