Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 74-67 win at Vanderbilt:
1. Don’t overlook the contribution from Wenyen Gabriel
Yes, Shai “Ironman” Gilgeous-Alexander was terrific yet again, scoring 22 points and dishing six assists while toughing it out for 39 minutes in the absence of Quade Green (back strain). Yes, Kevin Knox was huge down the stretch to finish with 17 points. Yes, Hamidou Dillao rose up and nailed a three-pointer from the left corner to puts up 69-61 with 1:17 left.
Compared to all that, Wenyen Gabriel’s seven points and nine rebounds in 9 minutes might not look like much, but the sophomore forward was as responsible as any other Cat for the way this young UK team pulled out its fourth SEC win, against one loss, by a grand total of 16 points.
The first half, Gabriel made a neat little play when he blocked a Vanderbilt drive, caught the ball and, before he fell out of bounds, threw it off the nearest Commodore out of bounds so the Cats could keep possession.
When Vanderbilt cut the Kentucky lead to 50-48, Gabriel scored on a contested drive. Then Knox picked off a Vandy pass and dunked at the other end to push the advantage back to 54-48.
Later, when the host ’Dores pulled back within five points, Gabriel grabbed a key defensive rebound at one end. At the other, his rebound basket off a missed Knox three-pointer put UK up 66-59 with 2:06 remaining.
“Wenyen’s effort, you’ve got to keep him in the game,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward.
“That’s what we expect from Wenyen all game long,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “His energy that he brings and he plays 100 percent all the time, it’s what we really need to win and he did a good job today.”
With Green and Tai Wynyard both still out and Jerrod Vanderbilt close but not quite ready to play in a game, Kentucky is going with seven players. To get 29 effective minutes from Gabriel, who also blocked two shots, is huge.
2. To win the SEC, you’re going to have to win close games
In these four SEC victories, there have been times in the final minutes where Kentucky looks very much like the youngest team in the entire nation. Up 70-66 with 34 seconds left Saturday, the Cats managed to turn the ball over in the backcourt then foul Vanderbilt’s best free throw shooter, Riley LaChance, on a three-pointer with 30 seconds left.
LaChance came into the game having made 24 of 27 free throws on the season for 88.9 percent. Inexplicably, unbelievably, he missed all three free throws. “That’s basketball,” said Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew.
So, yes, sometimes you need some luck. But you also need talent and some unusual maturity for freshmen,t he kind Kentucky has displayed in winning these four conference games by such slim margins — 66-61 over Georgia; 74-71 at LSU; 74-73 over Texas A&M and now 74-67 at Vanderbilt.
“We got to be able to show that we’re mature and be able to make winning plays down the stretch and get sops on defense,” said Knox. “And show people we can actually win games in the SEC.”
“Give Kentucky’s freshmen a lot of credit,” said Drew. “They played with poise down the stretch.”
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is as hard to describe as he is to guard
It has been said he has “an old man’s game” which is meant as a compliment. He’s craft. He’s creative. He’s sort of sneaky the way the 6-foot-6 freshman manages to get the ball down the lane and to the rim time after time.
Most of all, SGA can be described as effective. By leading UK with 22 points, Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 20-or-more points in three of his last six games. He’s scored 104 points, an average of 17.3 points per game during that stretch. He’s made 36 of 68 shots for 52.9 percent in that run.
The one game in this stretch where Gilgeous-Alexander was not productive was the game UK lost. He managed just three points in Knoxville when Tennessee put a 76-65 welt on Calipari’s club.
Saturday, Gilgeous-Alexander was 7-for-11 from the floor and seven of 10 from the foul line. He had six assists, compared to three turnovers. He scored 10 in the first half, 12 in the second.
And with Green out for the second straight game, Gilgeous-Alexander played 39 minutes for the second straight game. He played 38 minutes at Tennessee before 39 each against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
“I’m going off of adrenaline tonight,” he said afterward.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)