Gray skies. An accumulation of snow overnight followed by a cold rain. Duke winning on a last-second shot in the afternoon.
A loss to Vanderbilt would have capped a gloomy Saturday for the Big Blue Nation. Despite a stumbling start that fit the day’s depressing conditions, Kentucky righted itself and defeated Vanderbilt 56-47.
Maybe “outlasted” is a better verb. It wasn’t easy. More than one UK player got knocked to the floor. Murmurs of concern erupted occasionally.
John Calipari lamented the Cats’ recent pattern of slow starts. Against Vandy, Kentucky fell behind 16-4 inside the first five minutes.
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“It’s getting ridiculous,” the UK coach said. “It’s five halves in a row where we just start the game, and we’re getting smashed.”
UK players offered a variety of possible reasons for the slow starts, which include a 10-0 hole against Texas A&M on Tuesday.
“When we score a basket, sometimes we celebrate too much, and (we’re) not getting into the press we’re in,” Hagans said.
Keldon Johnson, who along with Hagans scored a game-high 15 points, saw merit in that theory. “Maybe that is something we should think more about,” he said.
Immanuel Quickley cited an inattention to detail. “Where we giving shooters some shots they shouldn’t get,” he said. “But, you know, credit us for coming back.”
Bottom line: Kentucky improved to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. And Vanderbilt fell to 9-6 overall and 0-3 in the SEC.
Kentucky trailed 30-28 at halftime. That marked only the second time UK entered the second half behind since the Duke avalanche (59-42) on opening night. The Cats also trailed UNC Greensboro 40-37 on Dec. 1.
On Friday, PJ Washington said the game would be a “big stepping stone” for Kentucky playing with seamless efficiency. “We’ve got to come out and play 40 minutes,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing we haven’t done all season.”
It was apparent almost immediately that Kentucky would slip off that stepping stone this night. Vandy made six of its first seven shots to build that 16-4 lead.
The Commodores made their fifth three-pointer at the 11:23 mark. Vandy, which had struggled from three-point range this season, was already within one of the six threes (in 25 attempts) made in a loss at Georgia on Wednesday. (The Commodores made only two of their 19 three-point shots the rest of the way.)
Not for the first time, Calipari mentioned how opponents are more enthused at the start of games against Kentucky.
“They are going to do things,” he said. “They are going to play sharp. But as the game goes on, if you will stay desperate, you will have your chances.”
Calipari could not wait for the first television timeout to serve as a brake on Vanderbilt’s peel out of the gate. He called time with 16:05. Twenty-eight seconds later, he replaced Reid Travis with Nick Richards. The latter changed the game.
For a second straight game, Richards gave UK a spark. He took a lob from Hagans and turned it into a dunk. He took a charge. These plays helped generate fan enthusiasm.
Still, Kentucky never led in the first half.
The first lead came as part of a 7-0 run to start the second half. Johnson did the honors with a three-pointer from the left corner, the same spot he missed from in the loss at Alabama seven days earlier.
His three put Kentucky ahead 33-30 with 18:45 left.
The lead grew to 45-39 on a Travis free throw with 9:01. But nothing was coming easy.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s struggles in the last eight minutes of games continued. The Commodores entered their dead zone down 45-42. Vandy scored only five points the rest of the way.
Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew said the opening minutes of the second half were decisive in setting a tone. After making 50 percent of their shots in the first half, the Commodores made only six of 25 in the second. That included two of 14 three-point shots.
Now, if Kentucky began each half that way.
“We’re all still learning as freshmen,” Quickley said. “(Learning to) fight for 40 minutes. Fight for a whole possession.”
Hagans spoke confidently about this lesson being learned.
When asked what can end the slow starts, he said, “Just listen to what Coach (Cal) has got going. But other than that, as the season goes along, it’s just going to click.”
No. 18 Kentucky at Georgia
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)