That picture says it all. With their backs to the wall, the Cats fought back and got a crucial 74-70 win over Vanderbilt, reigniting hope for the rest of the season. From the intro video right down to attitude on the court, the Cats looked like a new team tonight. Let’s break it down.
— The key to victory? Strong guard play from Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin. For several weeks, the Cats have suffered due to lackadaisical play from the two, but tonight it was one of the Cats’ strongest suits. Ryan Harrow was particularly impressive, posting 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers after going scoreless in the past two games. More importantly, he looked like a complete player, dishing it out and giving the extra effort that he’s lacked at times this season. Archie Goodwin also played well (despite what Cal called a few “Oh my gosh” dumb moments), scoring in double figures for the first time in four game with 16 points, six rebounds and three assists. The reason this team looked better tonight? Both Ryan and Archie played well, combining for 28 points off 13-23 shooting, 7 assists and only 2 turnovers. With Nerlens out, rebounding is more important than ever, and Harrow, Goodwin, Mays and Polson combined for 20 rebounds.
— Archie said the squad had a players-only team meeting after the Tennessee loss to discuss what they had to do to win. In the meeting, the players asked Ryan Harrow to step up, spurring Harrow to nervously go to Cal and ask for his starting spot back. “I know how much this team needs me, and when I’m not playing well you see the end result. …I grew up a little bit.”
— The star of the stat sheet? Willie Cauley-Stein. After dropping a dud in the Cats’ first game without Nerlens Noel, Willie came roaring back, leading scorers with a career-high 20 points, along with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, 2 of which saved the Cats down the stretch in the second half. Willie looked like a totally different player, dominating the post, battling for boards, and showing off some serious touch around the basket. After the game, Kevin Stallings said Willie was the difference in the game: “He kind of just did it how he wanted to. We should’ve just asked him what his preference was. Other than asking him, we couldn’t have been any more accommodating, I don’t think.” Even better? Willie made 4-7 of his free throws.
— Because of Willie’s play, we are now #TeamHeadband. Before the game, WCS tweeted that he was breaking out the headband once again and made Blair Waldorf proud with his performance. Also, the Cats are now 6-1 when Cal doesn’t wear a tie, which not only proves that the casual look works best for this team, but also that Cal read Drew’s post from earlier this week.
John Robic is #TeamHeadband, too:
— However, nothing is ever easy with this group. Vandy rallied in the second half, cutting the lead to two with three minutes left. Like they did in Nashville back in January, Vandy just refused to pack up their protractors and go home. Who finally kicked them off the lawn?
— Uncle Julius, who proved once again that he’s worth his weight in Werther’s Originals. Although Mays had an off night scoring-wise, he chipped in six assists and scored six of the Cats’ final thirteen points to hold off a Vandy rally. Julius did all the little things to help the team win and continues to be the leader this team so desperately needs. After the rout by Tennessee, Julius said that he was going to call out some of his teammates for using Nerlens Noel’s injury as an excuse for their poor play. After the game, Cal said he did just that: “Julius is holding guys accountable. [The other players] don’t all like it, but it’s better coming from a teammate.” Cal said that by giving all physically and emotionally can on the court, Julius has earned that right.
— It’s only fitting that in a game where the team showed some fight, that this guy was the Y:
— After months of barely cracking a smile on the court, the Cats finally looked like they were having fun out there. What helped them loosen up? A game of dodgeball. Cal said that the team played the coaches in dodgeball before the shoot around last night to “lighten the load.” Cal put a football helmet on because he knew the players would be coming for him: “I had to put a helmet on, if you understand why. I knew they are down there huddling saying: Let’s just all throw at Coach. And I’m like, you say when you want. There’s a couple of you I want to throw at, too, now.”
If you can dodge a wrench, can you dodge the bubble?
— Alex Poythress even roared. Poythress posted seven points off three Hutchersons and a free throw, unleashing his inner beast and hustling on defense. The Cats held Vandy to 44% from the field, but failed to stop the Commodores from doing what they do best: scoring threes. Vandy had 10 of them, which isn’t as much a failure on perimeter defense as a sign of how much they miss the defensive presence of Nerlens Noel. With Noel out, the team was forced to double up on almost every drive, freeing up the three-point line for Vandy’s trigger happy trio of Rob Odom, Kendren Johnson and Kyle Fuller.
— Things you never thought you’d hear an announcer say during a game? Kyle Wiltjer is Mr. Defense. Joe Dean Jr. actually asked “Who says he’s slow?!” Because Kyle had a decent game, I’m just going to let that one hang right there.
— The takeaway from tonight’s game? The Cats fought back. After the UT game, the fan base was at its lowest point in the Calipari era. I was depressed, you were depressed, the team was depressed. After the game,
Melancholy Stein Willie told reporters that after the UT game, he was so depressed that he barricaded himself in his room with a sheet over the window (presumably with some fair trade tea and Sufjan Stevens on repeat). Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Kentucky could have rolled over and died tonight. Be honest, part of you expected them to. But instead, they pulled themselves up by the ropes and fought back. It took a players-only meeting and a game of dodgeball, but the team finally remembered to have fun out there. And as we’ve seen with Cal’s past Kentucky teams, a team that’s having fun is hard to beat. “They played with confidence today. And that’s what we’re talking about.” Cal said after the game. “You’ve gotta fight and battle. If you want good things to happen, make them happen.”
Will this win boost the Cats’ postseason resume? No, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. With Ole Miss falling to South Carolina, the Cats are in sole possession of third place in the SEC. Bizarrely, Cal put it best when he said that he wanted to film a video for his website in which he laid down in a casket, slowly sat up, turned to the camera and said “We’re not dead yet.” There’s still plenty to work on and the road only gets tougher, but if the Cats can turn this season around after the tragic loss of Nerlens Noel, “Wouldn’t it be a great story?”
It would, and it’s one that after tonight, we might be able to believe in.