NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Here’s the bright side to an absolutely miserable game (until the final moments) that was hijacked by officials at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night: Kentucky basketball learned that it can win ugly. Really, really ugly at times. The Wildcats outslugged the Commodores, 87-81, in a game that featured 43 combined fouls and 56 free throws.
A whistling contest by the men in stripes — awful calls went both ways — eliminated almost all rhythm and flow, turning the game into a slog that benefitted the home team. It kept Kentucky’s high-powered offense from ever fully erupting. Vanderbilt sank 13 of 17 free throws in the first half to trail by just four.
In the 3 minutes and 6 seconds Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 SEC) was actually at full strength before intermission, it raced out to a 9-0 lead. Then came the whistles. Stars De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk each had two fouls by the 16:43 mark and played just six and nine minutes, respectively, in the half.
The sixth-ranked Wildcats’ coach, John Calipari, nearly screamed himself hoarse reminding players, “Don’t foul! Don’t foul! Don’t Foul!” It was a futile request, but Kentucky got just enough from Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo in the first half, then Fox and Monk in the second half to stave off an upset.
Player of the game
Finally unburdened of his foul trouble, Fox put the Cats on his back for the final 20 minutes, displaying his improved outside shooting touch and a heavy dose of the driving layups he’d leaned on until recently. Fox scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half and finished 11 of 17 from the field. He’s shooting 61.9 percent the last three games after starting the season 43.3 percent from the floor.
Stat line of the game
Fox and Monk combined for 27 points in the second half and 40 points for the game, even though neither of them played more than 29 minutes.
Kentucky led just 79-78 with 1:36 to go, but then Fox and Monk took over. Fox slashed for a layup with 1:17 left. Monk swished a gorgeous floater with 30 seconds remaining. Monk buried two free throws with 17 seconds left, as a line of police officers blocked Vanderbilt students from a potential court storm while they chanted, “Over-rated! Over-rated!” And Monk hit two more free throws with 2 seconds left to punctuate the victory. He finished with 18 points.
What’s next for Kentucky basketball
The Wildcats return home to host Auburn on Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPN. They’re back on the road Jan. 17 at Mississippi State (7 p.m. on ESPN).
Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt box score