In the game’s first 37-plus minutes, Kentucky led for only 45 seconds. But the Cats reached the summit after a long, uphill climb on Senior Night.
Kentucky rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit to beat Vanderbilt 73-67 Tuesday night and clinch at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
After the biggest comeback victory in John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach, UK spoke higher peaks yet to come.
“Today we learned … how … to … win,” said Isaiah Briscoe, momentarily pausing before speaking the last three words. “Overcoming adversity.”
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Kentucky, 25-5 overall and 15-2 in the SEC, did not take the lead for good until De’Aaron Fox drove to a basket that put the Cats ahead 64-62 with 2:13 left.
A three-pointer by Malik Monk put Kentucky ahead 69-62 with 47.2 seconds left. That seemed like a comfortable lead, but it wasn’t.
Vandy closed within 69-67 on a Luke Kornet three-pointer with 22.1 seconds left. That made it mandatory that Monk make four free throws thereafter to seal the victory.
Monk made only eight of 21 shots, but he led UK with 27 points. Bam Adebayo added 16 and Fox 13.
Vandy, which saw a chance for a statement victory to cement an NCAA Tournament bid slip away, fell to 16-14 overall and 9-8 in the SEC.
Kornet, whose Lexington ties go back two generations, led Vandy with 21 points.
With an eye on the NCAA Tournament, Calipari saw significance in how his team won. In the second half, UK made only two turnovers and shot with 57.7-percent accuracy, which Calipari saw as a reflection on good shot selection.
“That’s how you’ve got to play in March,” he said.
Although many SEC opponents had played Kentucky competitively this season, history suggested a convincing UK victory.
Vandy had won only twice at UK since Rupp Arena opened in 1976 (in 2006 and 2007). UK had lost on Senior Night just three times since 1964.
Yet, the game was a thriller.
The Senior Night ceremony did not launch Kentucky to a good start. Vandy scored the game’s first seven points. That prompted Calipari to replace senior starters Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder at the 17:25 mark.
With UK misfiring, Vandy built a lead that crested at 25-6 with 8:02 left. To that point, Kentucky had made only two of 17 shots.
Kentucky never led in the first half and trailed 30-24 at intermission. But it could have been worse.
UK made only three of its first 19 shots en route to a nine-for-29 shooting half. Leading lights Monk and Fox struggled.
For a second straight game, Monk shot poorly in a first half. He made only three of 10 shots. Neither of his two three-point shots went in.
Fox, who missed the Florida game Saturday because of a bruised knee, did not have an assist and committed four turnovers in the first half.
“We weren’t desperate enough to start the game,” Calipari said.
Vandy controlled the tempo, limiting UK to a single basket of fast-break points.
With all that, Kentucky being behind at halftime seemed inevitable.
Victory seemed problematic.
Until this game, Kentucky had not been a come-from-behind team. The Cats had lost in the previous three games it trailed at halftime: against UCLA, at Tennessee and at Florida.
Vandy attacked Derek Willis to start the second half. The Commodores’ first six points came in the matchup with Willis. That helped Vandy expand its leads to 43-33 at the first TV timeout.
As defeat became more likely, Kentucky turned up the defensive heat. Vandy, a team without a proven point guard, wobbled.
“We wanted to speed their point guard up,” Briscoe said. “. . . Make him make basketball plays.”
Kentucky methodically whittled away at a Vandy second-half lead that crested at 47-34 with 13:52 left.
Kentucky took its first lead with 4:45 left. Willis hit a three-pointer — his first basket of the game — to put UK ahead 59-57.
“We had to fight through it,” Willis said of the game-long comeback. “That’s part of our culture. It’s just going to get us ready for the (NCAA) tournament.”
No. 9 Kentucky at Texas A&M
Noon Saturday (CBS-27)