Where do we begin?
Kentucky damn near lost to Vanderbilt in a game Kentucky had no business losing. KenPom gave the Cats an 84 percent chance of winning before tip-off; ESPN put it at an 83.6 percent chance of victory. Yet with everyone and their mother expecting a UK win, Vanderbilt led for over 30 minutes Tuesday night, and by as many as 14 points with 15 minutes to go in the game.
It was looking to be the worst regular season loss of the John Calipari era, and at a time when fan excitement and team confidence was at its highest point all season, coming off the improbable win at West Virginia. A loss to Vanderbilt — a team Kentucky already beat in Nashville with a short-handed roster earlier this year — would be the absolute worst. It would be devastating. Not only would it have ripped the new momentum to shreds, it would’ve been the second loss to an unranked opponent in the last three games in Rupp Arena, an unfathomable thought for the Kentucky program. Even further, it would’ve been a loss to a team ranked outside the top 100 RPI, another unfathomable scenario for the Wildcats. The last time UK lost at home to a team outside the top 100 was… I don’t know… Never?
So there we were: hands over our faces, wondering what to make of the embarrassing defeat that was only minutes away. Kentucky had clawed back to within reach several times, but Vanderbilt was always there with a response to regain its cushion, mostly by way of a wide open three-pointer in transition or by beating the press (Ugh). The comeback looked out of reach; the late magic seemed to have expired in Morgantown.
The game was over.
And then Riley LaChance went to the line with 20 seconds to go, Vandy up three. It was redemption time for LaChance, an elite foul-shooter who, uncharacteristically, missed three straight free throws in the final minute of Vanderbilt’s home loss to Kentucky, and hadn’t missed one since. Facing a one-and-the-bonus opportunity, LaChance could end the game for the Commodores and put the past behind him.
LaChance missed the front end and Kentucky had new life. An uncontested layup by Quade Green cut the Vandy lead to one with nine seconds to go, and Kevin Knox quickly (well, not so quickly, actually) fouled Jeff Roberson to send him to the line with six seconds to go. Roberson made the first to stretch the lead to two; then Clank.
Both sides scrambled for the rebound before Jarred Vanderbilt got his hands on it and threw it to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at midcourt as he collided with a defender. A foul was called, 50 feet from the basket, and it sent Gilgeous-Alexander to the line — Kentucky down two, two seconds to go.
Gilgeous-Alexander made both to force overtime in the unlikeliest of finishes for the Wildcats. The true freshman stepped to the line and knocked down both free throws like an unfazed veteran. A moment that would be too big for most, was nothing more than two routine shots for Gilgeous-Alexander. He had ice in his veins with the game on the line as Kentucky, once down and out with little hope for survival, forced overtime in a wild turn of events in the final seconds.
Kentucky would go on to win in OT, although Vanderbilt still made it a fight in the extra time. Payton Willis hit two three-pointers to keep the Commodores around, but the curtains were closed when Quade Green took the ball coast-to-coast to break a late tie with a game-winner in the final seconds.
And though Green made the final basket to win the game, it was Gilgeous-Alexander who was the hero for the Wildcats. He scored a career-high 30 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the field and a 5-for-5 clip at the stripe, including the two under pressure that saved the game. He was unstoppable when he attacked the lanes and he was UK’s only option for most of the night, as well as its most clutch down the stretch.
UK assistant Kenny Payne raved about him after the game, saying, “He’s a really good player, he’s hungry, he’s a high character kid that comes to work every day and smiles and I mean it’s an example of why you come to this school and develop and learn and to be the best.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said of his big moment at the line, “I just tried to think: it’s two normal free throws like we shoot at the end of practice, so I made both to get us to overtime.”
As for Vanderbilt, it’s going to be a long ride home to Nashville after playing well and having so many chances to steal the win. Coach Payne said, “I mean my hat goes off to them because they played so hard and you could say they deserved to win, but welcome to Kentucky.”
Welcome to Kentucky, indeed.
The worst loss of the Calipari era was narrowly avoided despite a lackluster effort defensively.
Thank you, Riley LaChance.
Thank you, Quade Green.
THANK YOU, SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER.