Photo slideshow: Kentucky defeats Vanderbilt 56-47
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 beat Vanderbilt 56-47.
Maybe “outlasted” was a better verb. It wasn’t easy. More than one UK player got knocked to the floor. Murmurs of concern erupted occasionally.
The uneven play could have led to a thought: To a promotion involving setting a record for most people wearing hard hats, perhaps it would have been wise to add protective goggles to shield eyes watching the play.
Bottom line: Kentucky improved to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the Southeastern Conference. Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans led UK with 15 points each. Hagans had three steals, giving him 22 in the last five games. Immanuel Quickley chipped in 12 points.
Vanderbilt fell to 9-6 overall and 0-3 in the SEC. Aaron Nesmith led the Commodores with 11 points.
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 and zipped to a 16-4 advantage inside the first five minutes.
The Commodores made their fifth three-pointer that the 11:23 mark. Vandy, which had struggled from three-point range, 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.)
UK Coach John 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 dunked. He took a charge. These plays helped generate fan enthusiasm.
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.
Richards put that on display. If the three-knockout rule was in effect, the game would have ended 10:50 left. That’s when Richards got knocked down in a rebound situation. While sitting on the floor, he stretched out his arms in a what’s-going-on gesture.
Earlier, Richards landed awkwardly after jumping for a fast-break lob. He clutched an ankle but did not appear injured.
Less than two minutes earlier than that, Vandy’s Matthew Moyer inadvertently elbowed Richards in the face as they were on the floor scrambling for a loose ball.
Adding possible injury to this insult, Hagans went down with 5:05 left. He had scored on a driving layup, then stayed down and had to leave the game. As Hagans was face down on the court, a child yelled a plaintive, “C’mon, Hagans.”
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.
No. 18 Kentucky at Georgia
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)