Kentucky’s first half performance at Vanderbilt was … something.
Just like the game at Rupp Arena, the Wildcats trailed the Commodores at intermission. The best three-point defense in the SEC let Vanderbilt knock down eight threes in the first half to build up a nine-point lead. Sluiggish on offense, Kentucky needed a spark. To light a fire under his team’s butt, Calipari did the unexpected.
“He didn’t really say too much,” Ashton Hagans revealed after the game. “He was real calm. He wanted us to work it out all together and talk on it. We came out and we were the aggressors in the second half, just trying to get the win.”
Calipari could have yelled and screamed at his team to inject some enthusiasm into their play. Instead, he kept his cool and for a good reason too.
“It was my birthday and I just didn’t want to get mean.”
Calipari let that line marinate for a more than a few moments in Vanderbilt’s media room. In reality, he had plenty to say. He just wanted to calmly and clearly deliver the message.
“Forget it, we’re going to Nick (Richards),” Tyrese Maxey recalled. “Every play they’re either going to double him or he’s going to score, and that’s what ended up happening.”
That was one of a few messages he relayed to the team. The primary theme behind each was to force them to work and face adversity together as a team.
“The whole point of this is learning about themselves.” Calipari told his team, “They made eight threes guys, and you missed five one-foot shots. This is gonna be what the score is. Now we’ll give you this, that and the other.”
‘This’ directive was to feed Nick Richards. He made four easy buckets to score eight points. ‘That’ was a challenge to his guards.
“How are their guards beating us downhill and we’re not beating them?” Calipari asked his backcourt. “That was my challenge to them at halftime. One of the things we did — and we’re still experimenting how we’re playing — one of them was just open up the court and forget about the ball screen. If that guy can drive by you, then you should drive by him or he’s way better than you. How bout that? So we opened up the court a little bit and that’s when they fouled when we started doing that.”
By the end of the game, the Cats were rolling.
“Down the stretch at the end of the game we got three point guards we should be making good plays. We just weren’t earlier in the year. It was a good win, a road win.”
The proof is in the pudding. Coach Cal’s second half adjustments worked. Once down by 14 with just under four minutes to play in the half, they went on a 37-12 run to take a commanding lead and ultimately win 78-64 at Vanderbilt. Not all adjustments will create such a dramatic result, but Calipari knows there are plenty more to come.
“I’m just being honest with you, we’re still trying. We’re still experimenting, we’re still trying to figure out what’s best for this team.”