After two very nice wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee last week, Kentucky entered a week where they were facing two teams stuck in the bottom of the SEC standings. Both Ole Miss and Vanderbilt have struggled this season and a Tuesday night matchup with LSU awaits once this week is over. At some point, you felt that a hangover was going to come and that is exactly what happened in Nashville.
The Memorial Magic was alive and well heading into the half time break with the Commodores pouring in eight threes and playing with a ton of confidence. However, Kentucky made the necessary adjustments and outscored Jerry Stackhouse’s squad by a count of 51-28 in front of a very road team friendly crowd. The Wildcats were punched in the mouth and responded by pushing the tempo and seeing a confident Ashton Hagans take over the game.
Kentucky scored 78 points in 66 possessions while posting a very good 1.18 points per trip. The Wildcats, however, did not do a great job getting to the free throw line (19 attempts) so they had to do it in other ways. Despite making 6 of their 9 attempts it wasn’t from the three-point line. They decided to pound the paint and finished the game with 50 two-point shot attempts.
The UK offense got over half of their points in the paint, scored 17 second chance points on 10 offensive rebounds while shooting 61.3 percent from the floor in the second half. In what many will hope will be the first of a few big games in Nashville, Tyrese Maxey led the way with his fifth 20-plus point performance of the season.
The star freshman scored 25 points on 17 shots while hitting 3 three-pointers for just the fourth time this season. The dynamic combo guard remains one of UK’s most efficient players from two-point range after making 7 of 13 attempts and is now shooting 50 percent from inside the arc this season. Neither of UK’s other primary guards are over 45 percent. He was a dynamic force for Kentucky and his hot start allowed the team to hang around in the first 20 minutes.
Immanuel Quickley continues to provide the offense with some hot outside shooting and his 3 three-point makes puts him at 24 long distance makes in 10 SEC games. He only hit 24 threes in 37 games last season. He was woeful from two (1 of 8) with a few missed lay-ups mixed in, but he continues to be dominant from the free throw line after going 7 of 7. He now leads the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game and is heading directly towards first team All-SEC honors.
After being saddled to the bench with first half foul trouble, Ashton Hagans responded with a very strong second half while nearly recording a triple-double (11 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists). Most importantly, the sophomore point guard had just one turnover and paced the team during the big second half run.
It was just an average game for Nick Richards scoring 12 points on 11 shots while only grabbing two offensive rebounds. Vanderbilt did a very good job pushing him off his spot in the post and he just did not have the touch around the basket that he usually has. EJ Montgomery scored just one basket, but his four offensive rebounds and energy on the floor made a huge difference. The hustle play to get Immanuel Quickley a wide open corner three was the play of the game.
Kentucky got just six points off of their bench fresh after their huge performance in Knoxville. Nate Sestina has now played just a combined 17 minutes in the last two games as that shoulder that was hurt against Mississippi State could really be hindering his game. Meanwhile, Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang were both able to give the offensive points after crashing the glass.
Kentucky allowed 64 points in 66 possessions with the Commodores putting up 0.97 points per trip. After a very hot shooting first half, Vanderbilt shot just 36 percent in the second half while going 3 of 11 from behind the arc. Once again, Kentucky’s two-point defense led the way.
The Commodores shot just 35.5 percent from inside the arc (11 of 31) as they had a hard time finding consistent offense when the three-point shot was not falling. UK leads the SEC in two-point percentage defense and those stops allowed them to scrap and claw their way back into the game. It helps when you block 12 shots.
The rim protection obviously helped, but it has been a positive seeing Kentucky try to get more steals in recent games. Both Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey came away with two steals that helped the team come away with 10 fast break points. On the glass, Kentucky gobbled up 33 defensive rebounds versus just 9 offensive rebounds for Vanderbilt as they were able to hold the Commodores to 11 second chance points. Ashton Hagans ripped down 30.3 percent of those defensive boards as his fingerprints were all over this victory.
For the Commodores to have any chance at an upset, they were going to have to pour in a boatload of threes and it looked like they were well on their way to that following the first half. However, Kentucky made the necessary adjustments and shut that down in the second half. In those last 20 minutes you saw why the Wildcats currently rank 19th nationally in three-point shooting percentage defense.
Free Throw Rate
Following the win, Kentucky ranks sixth in free throw rate and fifth in free throw shooting percentage. Getting to the line and making opponents pay when they get there has been the best thing this team has done all season on the offensive end. They have four players with at least 96 free throw attempts and all of them are shooting at least 75 percent from the charity stripe with two sitting between 80-83 percent while Immanuel Quickley has hit 92.5 percent of his attempts.
This is great and something UK has leaned heavily on, but sometimes opponents will be able to take this away from you. Against Vanderbilt, UK shot just 19 free throws and that meant they had to find offense in other ways. They still probably aren’t shooting enough threes, but in Nashville their two-point efficiency was good enough to get the win.
The Wildcats were able to hit 22 two-point field goals and 20 of those made baskets occurred in the paint. Add in the six three-point buckets and it was enough to get a comfortable road win. Sometimes the opponent is going to eliminate what you do best and you must be able to counterpunch.
There is no hiding from the fact that Kentucky played very poorly the first half and it was looking like they were well on their way to having another embarrassing loss stamped on their resume. After a poor first half shooting performance combined with some very bad closeouts on three-point shooters, Kentucky suddenly found itself facing its biggest halftime deficit of the season.
In sports things are never always going to go your way and you have to be able to respond when adversity hits. Kentucky did that in the second half by having their lottery pick true freshman be a star, their point guard breaking out of his funk and by playing with full out effort for the entire 20 minutes. The result was a dominant second half that led the way to their largest margin of victory over a power conference foe this season.
There is still a lot to improve on, but UK could ill afford to make changes following another ugly loss. At some point in the month of March they are going to find themselves in a hole after a mediocre half of basketball. We could point to this comeback as a key point in UK’s ability to rally and win a big game in the postseason.
On to Ole Miss.