It was a night of firsts for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt:
1. Did the Cats steal one from the Commodores? You bet they did.
The simple truth is that despite improving to 17-5 overall and 6-3 in the SEC, Kentucky was outplayed Tuesday night in Rupp Arena. The Cats were outshot 47.5 percent to 45.3 percent. They were outrebounded 37 to 35. They made four fewer three-point shots, nine to five. And they managed just seven assists the whole game, compared with 14 for Vanderbilt.
Yet, somehow UK found a way to win a game it should have lost. Down 17 at West Virginia on Saturday, it rallied to pull off a huge win. Down 14 at home to Vanderbilt on Tuesday, the Cats rallied to rip one away from the probably more-deserving ’Dores.
“That’s an understatement,” said UK assistant coach Kenny Payne, who subbed for an ill head coach John Calipari during the postgame news conference.
The Commodores were up 70-65 with 40 seconds left. UK’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made two free throws with 26 seconds left to make it 70-67. But Vanderbilt had Riley LaChance at the foul line with 19 seconds left with a chance to all put it away.
An 83.3 percent free-throw shooter, LaChance missed all four of his free throws — three after being fouled on a three-point shot — during VU’s 74-67 loss to UK on Jan. 13. He had not missed a free throw since. And here, he missed again, this time the front end of the bonus.
UK’s Quade Green quickly scored at the other end to pull it within 70-69. Then Jeff Roberson, 9-for-9 on the night from the foul line, went back to the stripe. Roberson made the first, then missed the second. All Vandy needed to do was not foul. Instead, on a scramble play 65 feet from the basket, Vandy’s Joe Toye fouled Gilgeous-Alexander with two seconds left.
“Unfortunate,” said Vandy Coach Bryce Drew.
Gilgeous-Alexander made both free throws to send the game to overtime. There, UK went up 78-74, then down 79-78. A three-point play by Kevin Knox made it 81-79 Cats with 1:16 remaining. After Vandy’s Clevon Brown tied it again on a layup with 12 seconds, Kentucky pushed the ball down the floor quickly. Too quick for the Commodores, who failed to get back, and Green scored on a layup with five seconds left.
Vandy got off a three-pointer by Payton Willis. Drew said he thought the shot was going to go in. It didn’t. Kentucky won.
“My hat’s (off) to Vanderbilt,” said Payne, who admitted you could say the Commodores should have won the game. “Welcome to Kentucky.”
2. Once again, crafty Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the big man on campus.
You’d think by now the mystery would be gone. After all, the 6-foot-6 freshman from Canada keeps doing it over and over again, finding creative ways to drive down the lane, get the ball to the basket, off the glass and in. Still you wonder, how does he do it?
SGA was the Cats’ saving grace on Tuesday, scoring a career-high 30 points, including 20 in the second half when Kentucky fought back from that 14-point deficit to send the game to overtime.
When UK was down 66-61 with 3:38 left in regulation, Gilgeous-Alexander scored six of his team’s final eight points to help send the game into bonus basketball.
Gilgeous-Alexander said that was the first time in his career where he was at the foul line with less than five seconds left needing to make two free throws to win or send a game to overtime.
“He just has a will to win,” said Payne.
“You know, he has great size and he is shifty,” Drew said. “You know, he uses his change of speed really, really well. And he has a size that can finish over the top of smaller guards or get shots up over bigs. He had two excellent games against us and you know you’ve got to credit him for being a shot-maker, especially in the second half.”
Actually, you’d have to credit Gilgeous-Alexander with saving the night for the Cats.
3. After a leap forward at West Virginia, this was nearly two steps back.
As Payne said, give Vanderbilt tons of credit. Drew did a terrific coaching job, spreading the floor with the Commodores offense to produce either drives to the basket or kick-outs for three-pointers. Vandy actually scored more points in the paint than Kentucky 36-28.
But after the big win in Morgantown, Kentucky played flat the first half, too often on its heels defensively and missing shots it usually makes and did make in the comeback win over WVU.
Down 45-31 with 15:24 remaining and 57-46 with 9:32 left, give the home team credit for fighting back to get the win. Kentucky didn’t quit.
Still, when Calipari was asked Monday how he thought his team would respond to the pats on the back after the West Virginia win, the coach said that with so many young players, it was hard to know for sure.
Tuesday night bore that out. With this team, you just never know.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs Kansas (Chicago)
vs Monmouth (New York)
vs UCLA (New Orleans)