BOZICH | Kentucky freshmen give seniors farewell win (over Vandy) to remember
Kentucky's Senior Night celebration was saved by its trio of unflappable freshmen -- Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Senior Night is supposed to be a putt in the leather, a fastball down the middle, a warm and fuzzy story for the alumni magazine.
Vanderbilt came into Rupp Arena Tuesday night, and the Commodores had no interest in serving as a prop.
They didn’t let the Wildcats turn the game into a 40-Minute Ode to the Senior Class — even on a night when UK’s Derek Willis proposed to his girlfriend Keely Potts in the pre-game ceremony. (Yes, she accepted.)
They were determined to crash the engagement party. They made John Calipari’s team scramble and squirm and sweat all the way to the final seconds. They made the Wildcats overcome the largest deficit (19 points) that Kentucky has overcome in the eight-season John Calipari Era in Lexington.
The All Clear didn't arrive until the final dribbles. Malik Monk made four free throws in the final 21.1 to secure the Wildcats’s 73-67 victory.
This required unrelenting work, work primarily delivered by UK’s terrific trio of freshmen. Monk (27), Bam Adebayo (16) and De’Aaron Fox (13, while back from a sore knee) scored 56 points.
By winning, the Wildcats (25-5, 15-2) secured the top seed for the Southeastern Conference tournament and as least a share of the SEC regular-season title. UK held its position as at least a three-seed (and perhaps a two) for the NCAA Tournament.
But this one was more difficult than the one Kentucky won against Florida last Saturday.
Vanderbilt led all the way into the game’s 36th minute. Fitting that a senior — Willis — made a three with Vandy’s Jeff Roberson flying at him to give UK it’s first lead (59-57) with 4:47 to play. It was his only field goal.
Monk, also likely playing his final game in Rupp, took it from there. He usually does.
After Vandy responded with a three, Monk pushed Kentucky ahead, 62-60, with a three in front of the UK bench. The kid knows how to close a game, scoring 10 of Kentucky’s final 14 points over the final 3:40.
At the wire, Vanderbilt no longer looked like the team playing with all the answers, the way the Commodores did in the first 30 minutes.
Vandy led 7-0, 11-4, 25-6 and then 30-24 at halftime.
For most of the night, this wasn’t the Vanderbilt team that lost to Middle Tennessee by 23 or Missouri by 20.
This was the Vanderbilt team that won at Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee. The one that Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com had as his final team to make the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
Vanderbilt played like the Commodores believed they were a five-seed, not a 12-seed. They shot the three-pointer with confidence, especially forward Luke Kornet. The kid with the Lexington connections led Vandy with 21 points, making three shots from distance.
The Commodores passed the ball crisply around the perimeter. They played as if they intended to be quick, not hurry.
Remember Saturday’s game against Florida when Monk scored three points in the first half — and 30 in the second?
Monk didn’t start against the Commodores, sitting for the first 2 1/2 minutes so guards Dominique Hawkins and Michael Mulder could start on Senior Night.
Sentiment did not translate into success. Mulder and Willis missed early three-point shots as the Commodores surged into control of the game. They scored nine points off Kentucky’s first six turnovers while building that improbable 25-6 lead.
John Calipari had to make a move to make Vandy uncomfortable. He settled on extending Kentucky’s defense to several steps beyond midcourt.
It worked. Vanderbilt started playing faster. They were not as confident with the basketball.
“I told them we have to scramble up the game a little because they're getting in a rhythm,” Calipari told ESPN at halftime.
By halftime, the margin was down to six. When Monk started the second half with a three-point play to cut the Vandy lead to 30-27 it was reasonable to wonder if Monk would stuff the box score with 30 points in the second half the way he did last Saturday against Florida.
Vanderbilt wasn’t ready for that to happen — yet. The Commodores pushed their lead out to 47-34. Calipari was so annoyed by one call that he was convinced the officials missed that roared to midcourt and earned a technical foul.
Did it stir the Wildcats to defend with more urgency?
That’s certainly how it appeared.
The Wildcats finish the regular-season Saturday in College Station against Texas A&M, a team they defeated, 100-58, on Jan. 3 in Rupp Arena. The Southeastern Conference Tournament will be played in Nashville next week.
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