By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky had a hard time getting over its win over West Virginia and nearly had a costly letdown against Vanderbilt.
Similar to an 83-76 win over Mountaineers last weekend in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge, the No. 21 Wildcats had to overcome a big second-half deficit for an 83-81 triumph in overtime over the Commodores, who gained a dose of confidence of their own with an 81-78 win over Texas Christian University last Saturday in Nashville.
“I think that the fact that we’re winning these games is important,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said. “That shows there’s a will to win, but, my goodness, I wish it was a little easier. I would like for us as a team — and I’m sure (John Calipari’s) the same — to play those last five or six minutes, play the game like that and let’s see how good we are.
“Let’s all 12 guys or 14 guys that suited up in the jersey, you step on that floor, all of you guys are playing 40 minutes of basketball the way you ended that game, the way you ended the five minutes at West Virginia, and let’s see how good we are. If we can figure that out, man, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
Kentucky outscored the Commodores 12-10 in overtime and freshman guard Quade Green capped the thrilling victory with a driving layup with 4.3 seconds remaining to avoid a letdown following the dramatic comeback in regulation. Green finished with 12 points.
“I don’t know how many seconds were on that clock when he got the layup, but how about his poise,” Payne said. “There’s a lot of things that he could have done and he had the poise to drive that ball to the basket. That shows his maturity as a player and he made a big play in that situation.”
Green said he “just saw an open layup” while driving the lane and praised the team’s overall resiliency.
“We keep fighting,” he siad. “We’re some fighters. We keep pushing it and pushing it and don’t want to lose. We always want to win. “
Kentucky (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) trailed 70-65 with a minute remaining but scored six of the final seven points in regulation. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sank two free throws with two seconds remaining to tie the score at 71-71. Vanderbilt missed a desperation heave at the buzzer that bounced off the top of the backboard, sending the contest into overtime.
The Wildcats defeated the Commodores 74-67 on Jan. 13 in Nashville and dealt Vanderbilt its seventh straight road loss to the season to complete the regular-season sweep. The Commodores (8-14, 2-7 SEC) are 0-7 away from home this season and have lost six of their last seven league encounters.
Despite recording the sweep, the Wildcats struggled in their first showing since posting the impressive win last weekend in Morgantown. Kentucky trailed 45-31 with 15:21 remaining and had to rally to fend off the Commodores, who have won just twice in 41 appearances at Rupp Arena.
“It was tough,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “But, obviously we knew if we fought we could come back because we did in the game prior to this one. We fought and we were able to pull out a win.”
Gilgeous-Alexander paced the Wildcats with a game-high 30 points, including 24 in the second half.
“All year he’s been really good at getting in the lane,” Payne said. “We chart lane touches and every game he is our No. 1 guy that touches-to-lane. He’s a really good player, he’s hungry, he’s a high character kid that comes to work every day and smiles and I mean it’s an example of why you come to this school and develop and learn and to be the best.”
Kevin Knox, who scored a career-high 34 points in his previous outing and was named SEC Freshman of the Week after scoring 52 points in a pair of victories last week, followed Gilgeous-Alexander with 18 points and tallied six of those in the extra period.
Coming off a pair of impressive performances, Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel made his first start of the season in place of PJ Washington who came off the bench for the first time this season. Gabriel was held scoreless but finished with six rebounds.
Nick Richards paced Kentucky with eight points in the first half. Richards scored the first five points for the Wildcats, who struggled in the opening half coming off a strong finish in the win over West Virginia. Kentucky shot just 37 percent (10-for-27) from the field and connected on just one 3-pointer on five attempts. Richards rounded out four players in double figures with 10 points.
Jeff Roberson led the Commodores with 23 points, followed by Joe Toye with 16 and Riley LaChance with 13.
Payne admitted that he wasn’t happy at all, but just glad the Wildcats avoided a total meltdown.
“We are thankful we won the game,” Payne said. “But the coaching staff’s not happy because we’re trying to trend in a direction. We’re trying to build this team up to play a certain way and be ready for SEC Tournament play, to be ready for an NCAA run.
“The way we played that first half, tentative. Not aggressive. Not communicating on defense. Defensive lapses, you’re going to get beat if you’re playing tournament basketball like that. So are we content? Not at all. Will we be harder on the players? Believe me, we will.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Missouri, 2 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.