LEXINGTON, Ky. — All it took for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a look and three words.
“It’s that time,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne told the freshman point guard.
The Wildcats trailed a Vanderbilt team with a losing record by 14 points with 15:23 to go Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. Then Payne gave Gilgeous-Alexander, who had six points at halftime, his marching orders. Over the final 20 minutes, including overtime, he scored 22 points and dished out 3 assists.
“That’s when I knew that I had to take the game over,” he said of the exchange with Payne. “Not only on the offensive end, but on the defensive end. We had to get stops. That’s where it all started.”
Maybe so, but Gilgeous-Alexander made his mark by scoring almost at will after the pep talk. He sank two tying free throws with 2 seconds left in regulation and finished with a career-high 30 points in an 83-81 victory that was even more improbable than Kentucky’s crazy comeback Saturday night at West Virginia.
The Cats (17-5, 6-3 SEC) got plenty of help from the Commodores (8-14, 2-7 SEC), including a series of missed free throws and an unfathomable foul on Gilgeous-Alexander that sent the game to overtime. But Gilgeous-Alexander also imposed his will upon a helpless Vanderbilt defense, varying speeds and contorting his 6-foot-6 frame to go around the opponent — and sometimes into them — in a relentless pursuit of the basket.
He sank 12-of-19 shots, including his only 3-point try, and 5-of-5 free throws.
“His ability to get to the rim is unbelievable,” fellow point guard Quade Green said. “He’s long, athletic, can use any hand and is crafty with the ball. He can do anything with it.”
But Gilgeous-Alexander’s biggest moment came without any obstacles in front of him — at the free-throw line.
Vanderbilt’s Jeff Roberson missed the second of two free throws with 5 seconds left and the Commodores up 71-69. Then came a frenzied scramble that Gilgeous-Alexander described play-by-play after the game.
“They almost got the rebound, and then Kevin (Knox) made a big play to tip it, and Jarred (Vanderbilt) made an even bigger play to throw it back into play,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It went over PJ (Washington’s) hands, and I was, ‘Oh I’ve gotta grab this and try to make a play.’ Me and the guy went up for it, and the guy fouled me. I had to go to the free-throw line and make two.”
That all happened in a 2-second span.
Gilgeous-Alexander, who felt a huge bump on his ribs from the foul, calmly sank both.
“I just knew he was going to make them,” Green said. “I just told him, ‘You gonna hit these. We ain’t worried about nothing.’ He said, ‘I know.’ So that was that.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is second on the team in free-throw percentage — behind Green — at 81.5 percent.
“I envision just like I’m shooting them in practice,” Gilgeous-Alexander said, “when nothing’s on the line.”
But so much was on the line Tuesday. Kentucky had erased a 17-point deficit in the final 17 minutes Saturday in Morgantown and hoped to build on that. Instead, it came right to the brink of following that confidence-booster with a big-time bust at home against a Vanderbilt team it was favored to beat by double digits.
The Wildcats needed a hero, and Payne knew who it needed to be this time. Not Knox, who scored 34 against the Mountaineers. Gilgeous-Alexander, who had just six at WVU, answered the call.
“For a freshman in college to walk in these doors, on the biggest stage college basketball, and play every night against teams that are geared to beating you and that are living their whole basketball career to beat Kentucky,” Payne said, “for that kid to come out the way he did for us to win says a lot about him.”