NASHVILLE — Kentucky Coach John Calipari read his team’s dreary statistics: 35.8-percent shooting, 18.8 percent three-point shooting, 56.7-percent free-throw shooting. More turnovers (14) than assists (nine).
“And won,” he said after UK outlasted Vanderbilt 58-56 Saturday. “I love it! That’s exactly the win I love to have.”
No highlight material — or “hero plays,” as Calipari calls fancy-dancy moves his freshman-oriented team loves to flash — got Kentucky within sight of a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
If not precisely blood and tears, it took plenty of sweat to put the Cats two games ahead of Vandy with four to play.
“You’ve got to grind it,” Calipari said, perhaps thinking ahead to the one-and-done pressure of the upcoming NCAA Tournament. “We want to play fast. Everybody knows how I coach. We want to score a hundred.
“But if you want to play us in the 50s, we’ll play in the 50s and try to beat you,” he said.
Vandy, which lost at home for the first time in 14 games this season, insisted on a half-court test of muscle and will. After getting “punked” (center A.J. Ogilvy’s word) in Lexington last month (outrebounded 41-22), the Commodores were in no mood for references to their SAT scores.
“We talked about it all week,” forward Jeffery Taylor said. “Box out! Basically be physical. We had to match their ‘physicality’ to have a chance. I think we did a good job at that. We just didn’t make shots.”
Vandy (20-6 overall, 9-3 SEC) made only two of 20 three-point shots. Combined with UK’s 3-for-16 inaccuracy from the beyond the arc, the stage was set for a physical battle royal.
“That’s an Elite Eight environment,” Calipari said, sounding like he relished the thought. “Two teams slugging it out and doing what they had to do to win the game.”
With Vandy’s fifth sellout crowd of the season roaring, freshman John Wall proved again he’s at his best at the most-opportune times.
With the score tied at 53 (the game’s 11th tie), Wall drove, lost the handle and then outscrapped Vandy for the ball and made the layup that put UK ahead for good. Thirty-one seconds remained.
Two Wall free throws put the lead at 57-53 with 19.9 seconds left. That proved to be plenty of time for drama.
Freshman John Jenkins hit a three-pointer, only Vandy’s second of the game, to narrow the margin to 57-56 with 12.6 seconds left.
After Eric Bledsoe missed two free throws barely a second later, Jenkins got another three-point shot from the same left corner. This time Wall, who bit on Jenkins’ shot fake on the first three, better timed his jump and blocked the shot.
“He bit,” Jenkins said. “But I went up too fast.”
Wall making the second of two free throws gave Vandy a chance. Calipari called time-out with 2.5 seconds left and immediately regretted it.
After saluting Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings getting his team prepared, Calipari said he was fretful because of his team’s inexperience. “The coach of the other team called one of the dumbest timeouts he’s ever called. … ,” he said. “As we broke the huddle, I told the players, that’s the stupidest timeout I’ve ever called. Make me look good. Somebody do something.”
Vandy, which was out of timeouts, had a chance to set up a Christian Laettner-type play. A.J. Ogilvy caught the inbounds near the three-point line. He was supposed to look for Taylor cutting to the basket.
“I saw a player between us,” said Ogilvy, who took a couple dribbles and tried an off-balance floater from the foul-line area that missed at the buzzer.
“I can make that shot eight of 10,” he said. “Unfortunately, today was one of the two (misses).”
For much of the game, UK rode the inside play of DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, who combined for 32 points and 18 rebounds. Cousins led Kentucky with 19 points. Patterson added 13, including a rare three-pointer for this game that put the Cats ahead for good at 52-49 with 3:54 left. He also grabbed 13 rebounds. Kentucky (26-1, 11-1) stifled Vanderbilt with good defense.
Taylor led Vandy with 17 points.
“We don’t force our will on the other team,” Calipari said in noting UK’s ability to win at different paces and different styles. He saw that as key in the grab-bag of opponents that come with the NCAA Tournament.
“We want to play different ways,” he said.
Vandy, the team that got pushed around in Lexington, showed a more muscular style. It just wasn’t quite enough.
“All our big guys, they fought,” Taylor said. “They fought. They gave it everything they had.”