NASHVILLE, Tenn. — You can certainly quibble (again) with Kentucky’s late-game execution, but for the second time in five days the Wildcats also demonstrated an abundance of intestinal fortitude in winning an SEC game with only seven available scholarship players.
Their 74-67 victory at Vanderbilt on Saturday was similar to a 1-point home escape against Texas A&M on Tuesday: a comfortable halftime lead, frantic comeback by the other side, tense final moments and a dash of good fortune in the end.
John Calipari and his band of iron men will take it. No. 21 Kentucky improved to 14-3 overall and 4-1 in the league despite a two-deep bench and three different freshmen — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PJ Washington and Hamidou Diallo — giving the Cats 38-plus minutes apiece Saturday.
“These guys should be happy,” Calipari said. “They got tired. PJ didn’t play well [but] maybe he got tired. Hami, Shai, when they get tired their decision-making isn’t the same. But I played two guards 39 minutes a game when I was at UMass and that was the best team I’ve coached.”
Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso averaged 36.5 and 35.8 minutes in 1996, but all five starters averaged 30-plus, and those Minutemen went to the Final Four. These Wildcats are a long way from that right now, but they’ve shown their coach something lately.
“These kids go on the road,” he said, “and they’re not intimidated.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, who came off the bench until starting point guard Quade Green hurt his back at Tennessee a week ago, played 39 minutes for the second straight game and was UK’s best player for the fifth time in the past six games: 22 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds.
Freshman Kevin Knox, who’d been in a mini-slump, answered Calipari’s call to stop settling for 3-pointers and start driving. He scored all 17 of his points Saturday from either inside the arc (where he made 5 of 7 shots) or at the line (where he made 7 of 7 free throws).
Late in the game, Calipari “called my name,” Knox said, “and he wanted me to attack. He’s been challenging me this whole season to be aggressive and get to the basket, and I’m starting to get that.”
Knox scored 13 points in the second half, 9 in the final 4 minutes. With UK’s 9-point lead dwindled to 4, Knox’s steal and slam with 11:52 remaining briefly allowed the Wildcats to breathe. Then when the game was tied with 4 minutes left, Knox delivered a 3-point play in the paint and a layup on consecutive possessions — and sealed the victory with four straight free throws in the last 25 seconds.
“They have a desire to win,” Calipari said. “And I told the guys on the bench on the first one [Knox] took, ‘I’m going to keep going at him. Whether we lose or not, he’s got to figure this out,’ ” Calipari said. “It’s not fair for Kevin Knox, the youngest freshman in the country, to be put in that environment and those plays and have to make plays and free throws.
“It’s not fair to him, but that’s how we do this.”
The Wildcats also leaned on their two veterans, such as they are, sophomore forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. They combined for 11 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals in 44 total minutes off the bench Saturday, each coming up with critical plays at key moments.
Gabriel had 5 rebounds, including a put-back bucket, and an assist in the final 7 minutes, often swooping in from seemingly out of nowhere to snatch away momentum-changing (or saving) boards.
On the flip side, much like the end of the Texas A&M game, Kentucky made some stunning mistakes that easily could’ve cost them the game late. Up 8 with 1:17 to go, the Cats gave up a 3-pointer, missed a free throw, allowed a quick layup, turned it over and fouled a 3-point shooter all in the next 48 seconds.
Incredibly, Riley LaChance missed all 3 free throws that could’ve cut the deficit to 1 with 29 ticks remaining.
“I think it’s a testament to our age. It shows how young we are,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But with that being said, we won both games.”
That’s an important fact. And Kentucky showed off several more glimpses of what it might be by March, when the youngest team in the country figures to be much closer to full strength and fully formed.
Defense has been a struggle at times this season, but the Cats closed the first half Saturday by forcing a shot-clock violation, a Killeya-Jones steal, a jaw-dropping Gabriel block in transition and a Killeya-Jones block. All in a row.
“I think we all know that when we really channel and focus on defense we’re probably the best defensive team in the country,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s just us being engaged the whole 40 minutes. We’re so young and coming from high school [where] you don’t have to be engaged the whole time because you’re so talented you just get by. But at this level, you have to stay engaged the whole 40, and we’ll get there by the end of the season — and we’ll be special.”