The sweet sentiment that is as traditional with Kentucky’s Senior Night as the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home” comes Tuesday.
Minus Stephen Foster’s anthem, UK got an early start at Monday’s day-before-the-game news conference by paying tribute to seniors Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
More than once, UK Coach John Calipari took pleasure in pointing out that this year’s seniors are going out on a high note.
“All three are playing the best of their careers right now . . . ,” Calipari said. “Hopefully, they finish that way.”
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After the sweet sorrows associated with the parting of ways, Kentucky plays surging Vanderbilt.
Calipari mentioned a practical reason for wanting the seniors to leave the home stage with the fans wanting more.
“We need them to play well, and that’s what they’re doing now,” Calipari said. “It relieves the freshmen to take it off the freshmen, who are sometimes in and out. It’s hard here. This stuff is hard here.”
Hawkins, Mulder and Willis made significant contributions to Kentucky’s showdown victory over Florida on Saturday.
Hawkins played a career-high 37 minutes. Only three seniors in Calipari’s eight seasons as UK coach have played that much in a game: Alex Poythress against Kansas last season, Julius Mays 11 times in 2012-13 and Josh Harrellson four times in 2010-11.
“That was new for me,” said Hawkins, whose previous high was 32 minutes against UT Martin in November. “I had never done that before. It felt good, though. I felt like I was fine the next day when I woke up. So if Coach wants to play me 37 more minutes the next game, I could do it.”
Calipari recalled watching Hawkins play well for Madison Central in the state tournament and coming to an important conclusion.
“You saw a guy who was not afraid of the moment,” Calipari said. “. . . It means you can play here.”
Mulder’s 21 minutes against Florida were one shy of a career high (22 against Cleveland State) and five more than he’d ever played against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Mulder, who averaged only 3.8 minutes a game last season (and made just four shots), insisted he never considered transferring.
“I don’t really look out the back window so much,” he said. “I’m kind of right out the dash. This is the best opportunity I could have been offered, and I grabbed it with no hesitation.”
Willis played 25 minutes against Florida. He grabbed nine rebounds (equaling the fourth-highest total of his career).
“I think this is some of the best basketball we’ve played our whole lives,” Willis said of himself and his fellow seniors.
A recent story in The New York Times paid tribute to Kentucky’s senior trio. Under a headline that perhaps laid it on too thick (“In a Twist, Kentucky’s Seniors Are the Ones Getting It Done”), freshman De’Aaron Fox credited the leadership provided by Hawkins, Mulder and Willis.
“They don’t get shaken,” Fox said after UK won at Georgia on Feb. 18. “They’ve been through this. They’ve been here four years. Just the way they are able to get on the court and listen to Cal and listen to what he is preaching and go out there and execute it.
“Half the time they don’t even have to ask the question because they know what he wants.”
In that story, Willis said being a Kentuckian made a difference for himself and Hawkins.
“It’s just a different thing,” he said. “It means a lot more to us. We grew up around Kentucky basketball, just been fans of the sport. It’s part of our role and what we bring to the team.”
While the final act of their Kentucky careers is approaching, the three seniors may not be done playing basketball.
“I think all three of them will play professionally, if they choose,” Calipari said.
A general manager from Australia’s professional league visited UK recently to scout the three, plus native Aussie Isaac Humphries, Calipari said.
Calipari, who said he would start the three seniors Tuesday night, pointed out that each will leave with college degrees.
“The good news at the end is they walk away fulfilled on every front,” he said. “(That) is what you’d want.”
Vanderbilt at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Vanderbilt 16-13 (9-7 SEC), Kentucky 24-5 (14-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 142-47
Last meeting: Kentucky won 87-81 on Jan. 10 at Vanderbilt.