If I would have told you before the game that Kevin Knox would finish with zero points, rebounds, or assists by halftime, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would have just six points at the final buzzer, you would have guaranteed a fifth consecutive Kentucky loss.
And then if I told you it would be Kentucky’s best offensive performance since the West Virginia game nearly a month ago, you would put every dime in your bank account I was lying.
Somehow, someway, you’d be wrong both times.
The Cats poured in 81 points, and finally (efficiently) finished a basketball game down the stretch without having to rely on any one player.
Five players finished the day in double figures, and eight finished with five points or more. The Cats outrebounded the Crimson Tide 44-27 and finished with 20 total offensive boards, led by Jarred Vanderbilt with nine total and five on offense.
The spotlight was on freshman phenom Collin Sexton to start the game, but Kentucky point guard Quade Green outplayed him on both ends of the floor. Green finished with 12 points on an efficient 5-6 shooting line, along with four assists and no turnovers. Late in the second half, he had several clutch defensive possessions, making a complete turnaround from what we’ve seen from him in recent memory.
After weeks of trying, Jarred Vanderbilt finally found his groove on offense, finishing with 11 total points and three crucial buckets late in the game to seal the Kentucky victory. He started the game shooting just one for seven from point-blank range, but finally let the game come to him to convert on a putback layup, a dunk, and a smooth layup in transition.
“If there’s a shot you aren’t comfortable with, don’t take it,” said John Calipari in the postgame presser. “If it’s not a layup or a dunk you’re comfortable with, don’t take it. Slow down, play with energy, but don’t be in a hurry.”
He then gave a glowing NBA comparison of the Wildcat forward, saying he has the ability to make an impact similar to a key hustle guy for the Chicago Bulls during their historic run in the 90s.
“He is Dennis Rodman. Be Dennis Rodman, and he did alright. He can guard every position, he can rebound, he’s skilled, and made his free throws,” said Calipari.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson said he put several stars by Vanderbilt’s name before the game because he knew a high-impact game like this was coming.
“We had a couple stars by his name on the scouting report. Everyone talks about Knox and Alexander, but in games like this, you need a utility guy,” said Johnson. “Their utility guy was huge for them. We thought we had stops, but he kept the play alive.”
PJ Washington led all scorers with 16 points on 5-9 shooting and 6-9 from the line, and added five rebounds and an assist to the box score.
Like Vanderbilt, Washington struggled to do much of anything in the first half, including several lost balls around the basket.
“Early on (Washington) fumbled balls. He and Wenyen had nine of our 13 turnovers,” said Calipari.
Again, like Vanderbilt, he managed to convert with the game on the line, and both he and his head coach were proud of that step forward.
“When the game got in the balance, he made the plays down the stretch,” said Coach Cal.
“At the end of the game, I tried to get the guys up in the air, tried to get easy fouls and get to the line,” said Washington. “I did that and I made my free throws. I’m proud of myself and I’m proud of my team for trusting me and putting the ball in my hands.”
Nick Richards had one of his best games of the year, finishing with 10 points on 3-4 shooting and 4-4 from the line. Hamidou Diallo finally got things rolling on offense with several impressive lay-ins and hustle plays when the team needed points on the board. Knox finished strong with 13 points and several key baskets to start the second half.
Kentucky fans have been begging for a go-to scorer, but the team found their winning recipe without that tonight. When no one individual was putting on a scoring clinic, everyone in the rotation chipped in to create a solid final product on both ends of the floor. We didn’t need an iso-heavy Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to score points or a spurt of three-point heaves from Kevin Knox to spark a comeback.
They played with that heart and intensity of a team starting to click, especially with the game on the line down the stretch.
“We have to be better in the last four minutes,” said Alabama coach Avery Johnson.” “We didn’t take care of the ball. When we got two defenders on the ball, we didn’t get the ball to the open man. Give their defense credit, they did speed us up a bit.”
After a four-game losing streak, this team played with (positive) desperation. They fought like their season depended on it.
“They were desperate, said Alabama coach Avery Johnson. “Give them credit, they played like a really hungry basketball team. They had a lot of energy.”
With that level of energy and everyone carrying their own weight, this Kentucky team looked refreshed. They looked brand new.
They looked ready to get started with a new streak of their own, but this time, on the positive side of one.