Remember all the John Calipari talk about fight, will to win and his Kentucky players putting a priority on possession-by-possession execution rather than trying to be cute or go Hollywood?
Those admonitions came to life at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
UK needed those qualities, as Calipari all but predicted Friday when he called trips to Vandy’s famed and quirky Memorial Gym “always a hard game for us.”
It was again as the 74-67 final score suggested. And never mind that Vandy was the only Southeastern Conference team with an overall losing record. The Commodores came into the game with a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 163. That was the poorest RPI of any SEC team. The next worst was Mississippi at a relatively stratospheric No. 107.
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Never mind the numbers. UK and Vandy played a competitive game that saw no double-digit leads and the outcome decided in the anything-could-happen final four minutes.
Tied at 59-59, Kevin Knox put Kentucky ahead for good.
Remember Calipari saying he shouldn’t settle for jumpers? Knox didn’t.
He scored in the lane while being fouled, the resulting three-point play surely putting a smile on Calipari’s face while putting Kentucky ahead 62-59.
“He’s been telling me this whole season to be aggressive and get to the basket,” Knox said. “and I’m starting to get it, now.”
On the next possession, Knox made a layup. Those baskets started a streak in which Kentucky scored or got to the foul line on eight of its final nine trips downcourt to seal the victory.
“I told guys on the bench after the first one, I’m going to keep going at him,” Calipari said. “Whether we lose or not, he’s got to figure this out.”
Knox scored nine of his 17 points in the final 3:48.
When asked why he went to Knox, which UK did early in the season, Calipari said, “You’re talking about a 6-9 guy who should attack around that goal.”
Both teams were shaky down the stretch.
Hamidou Diallo gave Vandy life by twice fouling in the final 31 seconds, the first on a three-point shot with Kentucky ahead 70-66.
Calipari cited fatigue adversely affecting Diallo’s decision-making. With injuries reducing UK to a seven-player rotation, Diallo played 39 minutes.
Vandy had gotten the ball when PJ Washington’s inbounds went over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s head.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who also played 39 minutes and led UK with 22 points, said the shakiness late “shows how young we are.”
Meanwhile, Vandy also quivered in the clutch. Most notably, Riley LaChance missed four free throws in the final 5:36, including all three on the Diallo foul with 30.6 seconds left and Kentucky clinging to a four-point lead. LaChance had missed only three free throws all season before missing all four attempts against UK.
Kentucky improved to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in the SEC.
Vanderbilt slipped to 6-11 overall and 1-4 in the league.
A fast finish to the first half enabled Kentucky to enjoy a 36-27 halftime lead. It was UK’s largest lead of the half. A fitting play capped the mini 9-2 breakout for UK in the first half’s final four minutes. Having called a timeout with 12.1 seconds left, UK went to its leader, Washington. He made one of two free throws with 4.2 seconds left. Sacha Killeya-Jones rebounded the miss on the second free throw and banked it in to set the halftime score.
This was a fitting punctuation because the game set up as a test of whether Vandy could contain Kentucky’s “bigs.”
Vandy might have led at the break had it shot better. The Commodores, who were scoreless the final 4:25, made only seven of 27 shots in the first half. That included making only one of 11 attempts from three-point range.
Freshman star Saben Lee, who had as many turnovers (two) as points (two) in the first half, came alive after intermission.
“He’s big for our team because he’s the one guy who has the ability to create his own shot and create a shot for others,” Vandy Coach Bryce Drew said earlier in the week.
Vandy matched its seven first-half baskets inside the first seven minutes of the second half. The Commodores took a 56-55 lead on a drive by Payton Willis.
To that point, Kentucky had trailed for less than two minutes. Whether Kentucky would trail at the end depended on its will and poise.
When asked if the Cats were battle-tested now, Gilgeous-Alexander said, “I think we’re really tested, especially in the last two games.”
UK outlasted Texas A&M 74-73 on Tuesday.
“That’s the way it’s going to be all season,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’re going to continue to grow and we’re going to make strides and we’re going to be really good by the end of the season.”
Kentucky at South Carolina
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)