What made the difference for Kentucky in the second half?
In a game featuring wild swings of momentum, Jarred Vanderbilt’s frenetic play fit right in.
Vanderbilt contributed 11 rebounds in 11 minutes to Kentucky’s come-from-behind 83-76 victory at West Virginia on Saturday night.
“Unbelievable, right?” UK Coach John Calipari said after the game.
That gave Vanderbilt 29 rebounds in 49 minutes since belatedly beginning his season two weeks ago.
But his missing all five of his shots from the field continued another pattern. Vanderbilt has started his UK career 5-for-22 (22.7 percent).
“I’ve been losing my mind,” Calipari said. “I called Jarred. I said, ‘Listen, I need you on the court. I need your rebounding. I need your toughness. I need your ability to pass. What do you want me to run? Write up a play. Tell me how you want me to use you, offensively so you’re comfortable.’
“He’s not comfortable right now.”
Calipari agreed that Vanderbilt, who returned from a foot injury at South Carolina on Jan. 16, can impact games.
“He brings that toughness,” Calipari said. “He’ll go get balls. We’ve just got to figure him out offensively.”
Point guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green personified the dichotomy in UK’s performance.
Each contributed three turnovers in a first half that saw Kentucky fall behind by as much as 17 points.
Each had only one turnover in the second half. Maybe even more importantly, each drew praise for their second-half play.
“The biggest thing was both Quade and Shai played the way you need point guards to play,” Calipari said. “You’re not playing for you. You’re playing for us. You’re running downhill to create for us.”
Calipari singled out a play early in the second half. With UK trailing 54-44, Gilgeous-Alexander drove into the lane. But instead of continuing to the basket for a heavily-contested shot near the basket, he passed to an open Hamidou Diallo on the right wing. Diallo made the three.
“That guy was going to shoot it,” Calipari said of Gilgeous-Alexander. Instead, “he just made the game easy for Hami and he picked him up instead of getting it blocked and acting like he could have made it.
“That’s what we’re trying to get out of these guys. I need them to create shots and make this game easier for each other. And then the rest of it is toughness and fight.”
After going scoreless and grabbing one rebound against Mississippi State, Nick Richards almost had a double-double. His nine points and eight rebounds helped propel UK to victory. Eight of his points and five of his rebounds came in the turnaround second half.
“Just know he’s going to keep fighting,” Kevin Knox said of Richards. “His confidence level is still high.”
UK’s reversal of fortune in the second half included free-throw shooting. The Cats made less than half their free throws in the first half (four of nine). In the second half, UK made 18 of 18.
“I watched the South Carolina game,” WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. “They didn’t make anything (23 of 36). … They make 18-for-18 against us, and we put them at the line.”
Calipari’s chronic case of paranoia when it comes to the NCAA resurfaced as he acknowledged the painful defeat for good buddy Huggins.
“I am rooting for West Virginia, and I always do,” Calipari said. “He is rooting for Kentucky. We’re not going to play (again).
“Well, we will play each other in the NCAA Tournament. No question they’ll put us in the same bracket because they don’t want the two of us to advance. So we’ll play each other. But hopefully it’s (in the) later rounds.”
Knox embraced the idea of a come-from-behind victory on a ranked team’s court could start a wave of momentum.
“This is a great win for us …,” he said. “We’re just going to keep with this momentum and keep going forward. … It gives us all confidence. The next game we come out with energy because we just won a big game.”
Calipari dismissed the idea of the victory creating momentum.
“No,” he said. “Not when you have all freshmen.”
UK has a tough game Tuesday against Vanderbilt, he said.
Calipari later showed his hand by saying a coach must guard against player satisfaction.
“I told them, my job is to make them uncomfortable every day,” he aid. “So they can play in this kind of environment.”
Besides the stunning Kentucky comeback, the game was significant for two other reasons. It gave the Southeastern Conference a 6-4 win over the Big 12 in the Challenge, which marked the first time the SEC had won it since the series began in the 2013-14 season.
Calipari dismissed the importance of winning the challenge. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You got two of the best leagues.”
And WVU’s record at home under Huggins fell to 129-34 (64-5 against non-conference opponents).
On Friday, Green stressed the importance of rebounding.
“We need to rebound with them because they can’t rebound at all,” he said. “So all we need is to rebound and get out on the fast-break and score. That stops all of that (Press Virginia). We’ve got to crash the class defensively.”
UK outrebounded West Virginia 49-34, which was the third-most lopsided advantage the Cats have had on the boards this season. The Cats outrebounded Troy and Fort Wayne by 23.
West Virginia outrebounded UK 21-20 in the first half. UK outrebounded West Virginia 29-13 in the second.
Kentucky’s stretch of playing in games linked to ESPN’s College GameDay show will end at two.
College GameDay will originate from Austin, Texas, next Saturday. The featured game will have Texas play an Oklahoma team featuring freshman Trae Young.
It will be the third time College GameDay has been staged in Austin, and the first time since 2009. That time also was linked to a Texas-Oklahoma game.
College GameDay was in Lexington last weekend for the UK-Florida game. It was in Morgantown this Saturday for the UK-West Virginia game.
Kentucky was on consecutive GameDays last season: Jan. 28 against Kansas and Feb. 4 at Florida.
North Carolina is the only other program to be on two straight GameDays. The Tar Heels did so in the 2015-16 season: Feb. 27 at Virginia and March 5 at Duke.