CRAWFORD | 'Welcome to Kentucky:' Vandy flinches, Kentucky wins in OT
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made a pair of free throws with two seconds left to force overtime and Quade Green hit the game-winning layup with four seconds left to lead Kentucky past upset-minded Vanderbilt in overtime.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s too late at night to attempt an explanation for this Kentucky basketball team. Maybe the best way to say it is this: Sometimes, the name is enough.
At West Virginia on Saturday, a team so macho that Bob Huggins extols the virtues of being the toughest team on the floor in the pregame hype video, the Wildcats roared to a 49-32 edge on the boards and just wanted it more in winning a game in one of the 25 toughest venues in the nation to win, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.
It was, many of us thought, a potential turning point.
Turns out, not so much. On Tuesday in Rupp Arena, also one of the 25 toughest venues in college basketball, according to KenPom statistics, Kentucky was pushed around by Vanderbilt (No. 13 in the 14-team SEC in rebounds per game), outrebounded 37-35.
Now, I know there’s such a thing as trap games. But this was Kentucky sleepwalking. Luckily for Kentucky, it is talented enough – and Vanderbilt depleted enough – that it could walk to an 83-81 overtime victory.
But only after Vanderbilt missed a key front-end of a one-and-one with 19 seconds left. And only after Vanderbilt fouled 70 feet from the basket up two with two seconds left. And only after Vanderbilt left a wide-open lane to the basket for an easy layup and the game winner with four seconds left in overtime.
It was as if, having led for 30 minutes of the game, the clock struck midnight (almost literally) and Vanderbilt remembered it was Vanderbilt, and realized that Kentucky was Kentucky. Asked if Kentucky might've stolen one, assistant coach Kenny Payne said that "would be an understatement."
Wildcats coach John Calipari was under the weather. The game probably didn’t help much. He shrugged his shoulders in a postgame interview with ESPN, then let others handle his postgame news conference and radio duties.
Before he left, he did tell Laura Rutledge: “I’m hoping before the year’s out that we can land this plane and there’s some runway left. But right now we just have no consistency. … I don’t know how we won this game. This is one, I feel for Vandy, because they did everything they were supposed to to win."
Payne’s later quote was even better.
“You could say they deserved to win,” he said of Vanderbilt. “But, welcome to Kentucky.”
Sometimes, it is enough to be Kentucky. You can’t say that most places. But when a visiting program has beaten you only two times in 39 visits to the arena, when the team has lost its No. 3 scorer and No. 1 three-point shooter for the season, when the team is just 8-13 coming into the game and had lost every game away from home it had played all season, it is enough to be Kentucky.
After the game, some players told reporters that they felt lackadaisical. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t one of them. He put up 30 points and in general saved the Wildcats when no one else seemed to have much spark, especially after they fell behind by 14 early in the second half. He hit the two free throws with two seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime.
The pertinent question was how in the world did it come to this? Is it not much of a concern that this Vanderbilt team pushed Kentucky to the brink and played a game that even the Wildcats’ coaches admitted should’ve resulted in the Wildcats’ second straight home loss?
Maybe down the road it will be. On this night, Payne praised Gilgeous-Alexander’s will to win. And Quade Green having the poise to go to the basket in the closing seconds when a lane opened up for him. He praised his team for finding a way to win on a night when it didn’t have the momentum it appeared to have packed in its bags when it left Morgantown.
It’s an excuse, but it doesn’t make it any less true – with a team this young, there’s no such thing as momentum. You don’t know what you’re going to get.
But if you can win when you don’t get your best, even against a team that is on the ropes, you don’t look a gift victory in the mouth.
“We're trying to teach young kids toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, toughness through adversity, to play the game with a fire, with a desire that and a will to win, a will to dominate your position, a will to play together and no matter what the other team does, no matter what calls go against you, you fight to get that win,” Payne said. “That's what we're teaching. At times it's hard because you're dealing with young kids' emotions. On the floor you can see it. There are guys out there that are not having success, they put their heads down. There are guys out there that they're learning about who they are, they're seeing adversity for the first time and in the meantime we're saying, step to the side, we got to win this game.”
Kentucky got 18 points and 8 rebounds from Kevin Knox. It got 10 points and 6 rebounds from Nick Richards. Green finished with a dozen points. The Wildcats dished out only seven assists while making 29 field goals. The passing needed to be better. A lot of things did.
But it’s a process, of course. And when there’s this much youth and this much upside, it’s a whole lot easier to wipe your brow and smile about the near misses, because you can always look to a better day – so long as the runway holds out.
“I think that the fact that we're winning these games (despite double-digit deficits) is important,” Payne said. “So that shows there's a will to win, but, my goodness, I wish it was a little easier. I would like for us as a team -- and I'm sure Cal's the same -- to play those last five or six minutes, play the game like that and let's see how good we are. Let's all 12 guys or 14 guys that suited up in the jersey, you step on that floor, all of you guys are playing 40 minutes of basketball the way you ended that game, the way you ended the five minutes at West Virginia, and let's see how good we are. If we can figure that out, man, we're going to be tough to beat.”
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