An oldie but a goodie: Better to be lucky than good.
To be sure, credit Kentucky basketball’s fight Tuesday night when John Calipari’s club battled back from a 14-point deficit to put itself in a beneficial position in what turned out to be an 83-81 overtime win over the oh-so-close Vanderbilt Commodores.
It was the same will to win the Cats showed three nights earlier in Morgantown when they dug themselves out of a deep 17-point hole in a hostile environment to surprise not just seventh-ranked West Virginia 83-76 but their own UK fan base, as well.
Tuesday’s final score notwithstanding, Kentucky could have lost to Vanderbilt. Should have lost to Vanderbilt. When Kenny Payne, filling in for the under-the-weather Calipari in the postgame press conference, was asked if the Wildcats stole one, the assistant coach smiled and answered, “That’s an understatement.”
All Vanderbilt had to do was make free throws. Riley LaChance, who makes free throws against every Vandy opponent except Kentucky, went 0-for-4 versus UK in Nashville on Jan. 13. With a chance to redeem himself in Rupp Arena as Vandy led 70-67 with 19 seconds left, LaChance missed the front end of a one-and-one.
Then with 5.8 seconds left, Vandy up 70-69, Jeff Roberson saw his streak of 10 straight made free throws come to a screeching halt when he missed the back end of a bonus.
All Vanderbilt had to do was not foul. Roberson’s rebound turned into a scramble that burned precious seconds off the clock but ended with Vandy’s Joe Toye fouling UK’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with two seconds left. “Sixty-five feet from the goal,” Vandy Coach Bryce Drew pointed out.
You probably know the rest. With nerves of steel, Gilgeous-Alexander hit both free throws to send the game into overtime. Then with the score tied at 81, somehow, someway UK guard Quade Green found enough daylight to find the basket with five seconds left for the winning score.
Exhilarating as a near-death experience, the UK win also raised some questions and confirmed the head coach’s Monday point that with this young team you never know what you’re going to get. Just because the Cats should have built on the win at West Virginia did not mean they would. And they didn’t.
First half, especially, Kentucky underperformed. It missed shots and had all kinds of trouble stopping Vanderbilt drives. Possession after possession, the Commodores spread the floor and took the ball to the basket for either layups or kick-outs that resulted in three-pointers.
Let us say this: Forget Vandy’s now 8-14 overall record and 2-7 SEC mark. The Commodores were clearly better than the team UK beat at Memorial Gym and proof that top-to-bottom this is now one strong basketball league. The 43-year-old Drew is clearly a bright, young coach who is getting the job done recruiting, based on signing a 2018 class ranked fifth by 247Sports. The Commodores are also still very much in the hunt for New Albany, Ind., megaprospect Romeo Langford.
So how did Kentucky prevail? What Kevin Knox was to the win in West Virginia, Gilgeous-Alexander was to the victory over Vandy. The crafty Canadian scored a career-high 30 points. When it comes to getting to the rim, the 6-foot-6 guard is a magician who just seems to find a way. Where would this team be without him?
More importantly, where is this team now? Tuesday raised a red flag with regard to a young team handling prosperity. Not that we should have been surprised, of course. Young teams are not just up-and-down over a season, they’re often up-and-down in the same game. We’ve witnessed that fact back-to-back.
A force at WVU, then fortunate against VU, the Cats next ride their roller coaster to Missouri for a Saturday afternoon game that should be a UK win. Then again, Tuesday should have been a UK loss. Get used to it, Big Blue Nation, if you’re not already. With this team, we just never know.
Kentucky at Missouri
When: Saturday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. ET
Where: Mizzou Arena in Columbia, MO
Radio: UK Network