Vanderbilt entered Rupp Arena Wednesday night searching for their first SEC win in 697 days. After more than 20 minutes of basketball, it looked like they were well on their way to finding it.
Kentucky slept-walk through the first half of the 6:30 p.m. ET start before ultimately powering through to a 71-62 victory. The Wildcats improve to 16-4 overall, 6-1 in SEC play.
For most of the game many feared it was deja vu all over again. The script had been written before against Evansville, Utah and South Carolina. The Evansville loss is the only Quadrant IV loss by a team in the top 40 of the NET rankings. A loss to Vanderbilt would have been the second of the season, potentially knocking the Cats down two seed lines on Selection Sunday. Here’s how the Wildcats avoided a disaster at Rupp Arena.
This is Nick Richards’ Team
Kentucky’s double-double machine made an almost fatal early mistake. Three minutes into the game Richards picked up two fouls in 12 seconds. Was the first one on the baseline a good call? That’s debatable. What you can’t argue is that he should have been smarter when he tried to block a shot seconds later.
Cast off to the bench, Kentucky looked lost up a creek without a paddle. Vanderbilt outscored UK in the paint 16-10 to take a 35-28 halftime lead.
When Richards returned to action in the second half, the Wildcats were a completely different team. What was exactly different? To start, he scored all 15 of his points and grabbed 10 of his 11 rebounds in the second half. Kentucky completely transformed inside, winning the battle in the paint 20-6 in the second half.
Throw the stats to the side, tonight’s second half proves that Richards is even more valuable than what you see in the box score. The offense was entirely out of sync in the first half. Upon Richards’ return, they found a flow by using him in high ball screens. When Vanderbilt took away the roll, he gave shooters on the perimeter enough space to operate. When they forced him to pop, he buried buckets from the midrange. As the wheels came off, he piled up dunks.
There’s no burying the lede. This team goes as Nick Richards goes.
Maxey is Big in Big Moments
We were beginning to realize Richards was the key to Kentucky’s success, a sentiment that was confirmed vs. Vandy. Tonight we also received confirmation that Tyrese Maxey is typically at his best when Kentucky needs it the most.
Vanderbilt deserves credit. They hit frustrating shots all night long, seemingly finding a response to every big UK shot that appeared to spark a run. They ran out of responses when Tyrese Maxey flipped the switch.
Leading by just two points with six minutes to play, Maxey drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key, beginning a 10-point scoring outburst over the next 3:30 minutes to put the game out of reach for the Commodores. Tonight’s game-closing run won’t be remembered as well as the big shot he buried to beat Michigan State, but it confirmed that John Calipari can trust the ball in his hands late in important postseason games.
Disappearing Double-Digit Deficits
The ultimate enigma facing this team all season was their inability to put teams away after building up a double-digit lead. The shoe was on a different foot tonight.
After taking an early lead, Vanderbilt took control with 7:31 remaining in the first half. The Commodore lead grew to 10 points early in the second half. Richards’ return helped UK return to form, along with the help from an unlikely source — E.J. Montgomery.
The sophomore forward turned two offensive rebounds into five points. The initial ‘and one’ was followed a few possessions later with a hard-fought finish that gave Kentucky its first lead in over 18 minutes. Saben Lee had one more response on the next trip down the court, but Vandy never retook the lead after that. Montgomery finished with nine points, four rebounds and a blocked shot in 21 minutes.
UK Must Eliminate Elementary Mistakes
There have been a few times this season where it looked like Kentucky got over the hump. Don’t be fooled. In every game there will be a head-scratching moment or two. Tonight featured a few more than two.
Of course, Ashton Hagans did the thing where he leaps into the air and doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the ball. Once Maxey threw it to nobody in transition as he attempted a no-look pass. The worst gaffes were the defensive brain farts.
UK has guarded staggered ball screens all season long, yet to start the second half the defender went under each screen and nobody showed, leaving Saben Lee wide open for an easy three from the top of the key. That wasn’t as frustrating as the final possession of the half. Jerry Stackhouse called a timeout to draw up the oldest play in the book. Keion Brooks and Johnny Juzang never realized the double screen was coming, even though Brooks was staring right at the passer. Instead of showing to help on the three-point shooter, he let one man screen two, extending Vanderbilt’s lead to seven before halftime.
Excuse my commentary. My television was the victim of many loud, verbal insults in the first half.
Help Defense doesnt exist. pic.twitter.com/wQ0WHcwVny
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) January 30, 2020
Visitors Love Rupp’s Rims
The BBN may have let that 0-for-25 Vanderbilt performance from behind the three-point line vs. Tennessee get to our head. At halftime the Commodores had knocked down five threes and were shooting over 40 percent behind the line.
There’s always one unexpected guy that transforms into a superstar. Tonight that was Dylan Disu. The 6’9″ freshman scored a career-high 21 points last week against Alabama. He was well on his way to setting a new high until he picked a fourth foul with 11:55 left in the second half. That ‘and one’ he surrendered to E.J. Montgomery was a backbreaker for Vandy. By the time he returned five minutes later, the game was all but lost. He still finished with 13 points (3-8 3FG), 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
Vanderbilt was on the verge of capitalizing on the perfect “trap game” opportunity. Sandwiched in-between an emotional overtime win at Texas Tech and a College GameDay matchup against Auburn — the same team that ended UK’s 2019 season — Kentucky had every excuse in the world to lay an egg. To see them once again play to a lower level of competition should not have been surprising.
When this team got punched the mouth, they picked themselves back up and found a way to win. That was not always the case earlier in the season. If we learned nothing else from the Wildcats Wednesday night, it’s that no matter what hand they are dealt, there’s no panic until the battle is won.