After weeks of inconsistent play and slow starts, the Kentucky Wildcats are back to playing at the level we all expected going into the year, with national championship dreams alive and well.
There was no hangover from the Kansas game. This was no trap game. This was the Wildcats heading into Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym and absolutely demolishing them in all facets of the game.
Right off the bat, we knew it was going to be a dominant performance for the Wildcats. After the Commodores took a 3-2 lead just one minute and 48 seconds into the game, the Cats immediately took back the lead and extended it to ten at the 9:36 mark in the first half.
In a matter of minutes, Kentucky went on a 14-2 run to push the score to 36-14, which soon turned into a ridiculous 45-15 lead at the break.
To put that score into perspective, the 30-point halftime lead was the program’s largest in an SEC road game since January 16th, 1996 at LSU when they led by 44 points. To take it a step further Kentucky forward PJ Washington managed to outscore Vanderbilt by himself (18-15) at the half. “Go Big Blue” chants echoed throughout the arena, and they would continue through the final buzzer.
Following the break, the Wildcats’ lead never fell below the 28-point mark, and soon extended to as many as 38 with 9:11 remaining in the contest. Kentucky was converting on offense, moving the ball well and making shots from both mid-range and beyond the arc. On defense, they overwhelmed the Commodores full-court, making every single shot difficult and forcing unnecessary turnovers/miscues. Kentucky was able to find their groove and use that momentum to their advantage while Vanderbilt had no answers on either end.
To prove just how ridiculous the conference road victory was, Kentucky walk-on Jonny David came in at the 1:28 mark in the second half to close things out with a final score of 87-52. He didn’t score, but the living, breathing basketball version of the victory formation gave the remaining Kentucky fans in attendance reason to send the team off with a surplus of cheers and a standing ovation.
As far as specific performances go, there are several individuals to point out for their impressive road performances.
PJ Washington had arguably his best game as a Wildcat, finishing with 26 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, and three steals in 29 minutes of action. He shot an efficient 9-15 from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc, proving that he can be one of the most dominant and efficient post players in the nation when he’s firing on all cylinders. He took the game over, attacking the basket and putting the ball in the basket in a variety of ways.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari has begged Washington to put together a complete performance for all 40 minutes of the game, and we finally got it.
Beyond Washington, sophomore center Nick Richards finished second on the team with 14 points (4-5 shooting, 6-10 from the free throw line). In 19 minutes on the floor, the Wildcat big man also added four blocks and one rebound, his third consecutive game with a block and his tenth in just three outings. With two impressive alley-oop slams to close out the game and several swats in key moments, Richards’ confidence is growing and he’s improving by the game. It’s an incredible sight to see.
Kentucky guard Tyler Herro finished third on the team with 12 points on 6-13 shooting, adding three rebounds, two assists, three steals, and just one turnover in yet another well-rounded performance. He had a cold start overall, but he finished the evening as one of the team’s most valuable performers.
After finishing the first half with zero points, freshman guard Keldon Johnson got things started in the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers en route to an 11-point overall performance. He finished the day shooting 3-6 from the field (3-4 from three) and two assists in 23 minutes.
Freshman star point guard Ashton Hagans also flirted with a triple-double, finishing with seven points (3-5 shooting, 1-2 from three), six rebounds, eight assists, one steal, and just one turnover in the victory. It was the Cartersville, GA native’s 14th consecutive game with at least one steal and his 17th on the year.
Beyond the five major player storylines of the evening, guards Jemarl Baker and Immanuel Quickley each added six points from the field on a combined 4-7 shooting and 3-5 from three. Kentucky center EJ Montgomery also finished with four points, one rebound, two assists, and a block in 11 minutes of action.
The Wildcat bench finished with zero points in the team’s victory over Kansas, but they turned things around by finishing with a combined 30 in the victory.
In possibly the most interesting aspect of the victory, Kentucky forward Reid Travis finished with a season-low one point on 0-1 shooting, three rebounds, and one block in 21 minutes. And it didn’t even really feel like he had a poor game overall. The Wildcats were just so dominant from so many areas on both ends of the floor that they really didn’t need his low-post scoring presence.
In overall team stats, numbers don’t lie: the Wildcats dominated across the board.
With 30 made field goals and ten 3-pointers (59 percent), Kentucky shot 55.6 percent from the field compared to Vanderbilt’s 37 percent overall. They obliterated the Commodores at the line (74 percent to 50 percent), matched total rebounds, out-assisted them 18-10, finished with more steals (7-2), blocks (6-3), and committed fewer turnovers (7-20).
In the 87-52 victory, Kentucky finished with their biggest road win since the national title 2012 squad defeated South Carolina on the road by 34.
With the win, the Wildcats now move to 17-3 on the year and 6-1 in the SEC. They’re ranked No. 7 in the nation, but there’s an argument to be made for the Wildcats as the hottest team in college basketball right now.
Kentucky will head to Gainesville this weekend to take on the 11-8 Florida Gators at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday, also known as the O’Dome.
Oddly enough, even with Kentucky’s recent hotstreak and Florida’s underwhelming overall season, ESPN’s matchup predictor favors the Gators by a total of 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent.
Guess the Cats will just have to continue to prove the doubters wrong yet again.