Fans of basketball grit and overcoming obstacles got their fill during Kentucky’s 87-81 victory at Vanderbilt Tuesday night.
Neither team led by double digits in a slog of a game that contained 43 fouls and 56 free throws.
This battle of attrition contrasted sharply with UK’s first three Southeastern Conference games: won by an average of 30.4 points.
“Today we showed people that not only are we a transition team, but we can play in the half-court also,” said Isaiah Briscoe, who scored a career-high 23 points.
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The Cats, who improved to 14-2 overall and 4-0 in the SEC, carried the added burden of foul trouble. Leading scorer Malik Monk got in early foul trouble and never got into a comfortable rhythm. He scored 18 points, but needed 15 shots to do it.
Backcourt mate and fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox also got in early foul trouble. He came alive in the second half, scoring 16 of his 22 points after intermission. He, too, thought UK made a statement.
“We’re a young team, so people think if they can get us in a close game, that we don’t have the experience to win a game like that,” Fox said. “But down the stretch, we executed all our plays.”
UK Coach John Calipari was not no enthralled with UK’s performance. He saw the recurring problem associated with discipline reoccurring.
But Calipari agreed the player that led Kentucky to victory fit the circumstances. Briscoe, Mr. Hale and Hearty, steadied the Cats in this turbulent game.
Maybe more important than the career-high 23 points, Briscoe was a court presence from start to finish.
Teammate Dominique Hawkins all but predicted a big game for Briscoe. He said the sophomore guard would give Kentucky the leadership it needed in Vandy’s quirky Memorial Gymnasium.
“Isaiah’s IQ is unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “He’s been a great leader for us.”
Briscoe, who struggled shooting free throws as a freshman, actually came into the game among the SEC’s leaders in free-throw accuracy. His 86.7-percent foul shooting (13 of 15) ranked seventh best.
Briscoe was also tied with Fox for the league lead in assists: 6.3 per game. He had a team-high five against Vandy.
Bam Adebayo chipped in 14 points.
It was known almost immediately that Kentucky would need its depth. Monk and Fox, the Cats’ start freshman guards and the team’s top two scorers, eached picked up two fouls before the first television timeout.
The anticipation of another — ho-hum — blowout victory against a helpless SEC opponent seemed in the offing. Kentucky scored the game’s first nine points. Vandy hadn’t made a shot.
But with Monk and Fox on the bench because of what Fox called “silly fouls,” the game changed. Vandy outscored UK 17-6 to take a 17-15 lead.
Briscoe, the only one of UK’s Three Tenors not in foul trouble, and Adebayo steadied the Cats.
Adebayo overpowered Vanderbilt inside. He led all scorers in the first half with 13 points. Plus, he put Vandy’s frontcourt in foul trouble. Kornet picked up two fouls. His backup at center, redshirt freshman Djery Baptiste, picked up four fouls.
Briscoe scored 10 points in the first half. The final two were telling. With the clock inside 15 seconds, Fisher-Davis left his man and pulled sophomore Joe Toye away from Briscoe.
The message was clear: Let Briscoe shoot from the perimeter, but try to prevent a drive.
Toye failed as Briscoe drove to a layup to set UK’s 45-41 halftime lead.
Nine of Briscoe’s 10 baskets were layups.
“When you play off me, I just get a full head of steam going toward you,” Briscoe said of his ability to get to the rim. “It’s just something I’ve always known how to do.”
When asked if he ever loses sight of the rim on drives through crowded lanes, Briscoe quipped, “No. I know where the rim is at. It’s been in the same spot for 20 years.”
Auburn at No. 6 Kentucky
4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)