NASHVILLE, Tenn. – This Kentucky basketball team likes to gallop, not trot. It prefers to race by an opponent at such devastating speed that the wind whips the very breath from their lungs and suffocates all hope as they scream past. That’s how these Wildcats win, or at least it was.
They’d opened SEC play by blasting Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Arkansas by an average margin of 30.3 points. They’d scored 94.2 points per game for the season, topped 100 points five times, beaten 12 of their first 13 victims by at least 20 – and the other victory was a dead sprint to the finish with North Carolina.
Then on Tuesday night at Vanderbilt, Kentucky’s dizzying offense came to a whistle-screeching halt. There were 43 total fouls called, including 23 on the Wildcats, and 56 free throws shot, including 32 by the Commodores. There was little rhythm, even less running, and a team just barely above .500 somehow trailed sixth-ranked Kentucky by a single point with 1:36 remaining.
This was not how the Wildcats wanted to play, and yet: Kentucky 87, Vanderbilt 81.
“I knew it was going to be a tough game when we came out and the ref was calling easy fouls on De’Aaron (Fox) and Malik (Monk),” sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said of the Cats’ two freshman stars, who played just six and nine minutes in the first half. “I just think today we showed people that not only are we a transition team, but we can play in the half-court also.”
To weather the whirlwind of whistles in the first half, Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 SEC) fed big man Bam Adebayo in the paint, and he delivered 13 points before the break. Briscoe was a steadying force in both halves, going for 23 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
And when Fox and Monk – who had two fouls apiece less than four minutes into the game – were unleashed in the second half, they more than made up for their earlier absence. They scored 27 of their combined 40 points after intermission, eight of those in the final 77 seconds.
“We need close close games. It’s just important for us to show people that we can win these types of games,” Fox said. “We’re a young team, so people think if they can get us in a close game, we don’t have the experience to be able to win games like that. But I think down the stretch, we executed all our plays.
“It’s extremely important, just being able to show people even if we’re not out and running, we can execute in the half-court.”
Fox sank 11 of 17 shots from the field, hitting mid-range jump shots and high-difficulty driving layups with equal success. Briscoe hit 10 of 18 shots, putting defenders on roller skates to attack the rim. Adebayo either dunked or got fouled almost every time he touched it, and then sank 8 of 10 free throws.
Monk was, by his standards, a little off. But he rose to meet the moment when it mattered. On a night when so much of the game was ugly, Monk’s floater in the lane with 32 seconds left was as pretty as they come.
That’s why Kentucky coach John Calipari, annoyed as he was at plenty of self-inflicted errors Tuesday night, left Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym “really happy we won this game,” he said. “I liked the way we rebounded and fought. Like I told these guys: You gotta enjoy the wins. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Enjoy the wins. When we win a game, there’s not relief for me. It’s joy. I am happy, and it was a hard-fought game, which makes me even happier.”
Oh, he had plenty of nits to pick after the victory. The defense wasn’t good enough, the shot selection at times maddening, the senseless fouls, the lack of “empowerment” by a team starting four freshmen that is still too reliant on its coach in critical moments.
And yet: “Watching this team play, you have to have fun,” Calipari said. “Like, wow, this is fun watching them, the stuff they’re doing, as fast as they’re playing and some unbelievable plays that they make.”