John Calipari was only kidding when he was asked about Anthony Davis’ latest audition for National Player of the Year honors.
“I’ve been holding him back,” Coach Cal said.
But only a few reporters laughed.
See, the thing is, after watching Davis torch Vanderbilt for a career-high 28 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks Saturday, maybe we really are just beginning to see the full potential of Davis. That’s hard to imagine for a player who is already considered one of the top two or three players in college basketball, but Davis took his game to a new level in an 83-74 Kentucky win over Vanderbilt.
In a heavyweight battle at Rupp Arena, Davis showed he’s capable of throwing more than just haymakers. Displaying an ability to hit the long- and midrange jumper, Davis can jab, punch and defend.
On an afternoon where Vanderbilt took away Davis’ offensive bread and butter, the lob dunk, Davis displayed the full package with scary consistency. The freshman forward from Chicago hit 10-of-11 shots on his way to a career day. The lone miss was a blocked shot.
“Today was probably his best game of the season,” sophomore Terrence Jones said. “He just did everything.”
The afternoon looked very much like what college footballers call their respective sport’s Heisman moment. Was this college basketball’s version?
“It would be great to get that award, but at the same time, my main focus is to win a national championship,” Davis said.
In the meantime, Kentucky will settle for its 45th regular-season SEC championship with its season sweep of Vandy. UK, now 28-1, 14-0 in the league, had already clinched a share of the title, but the Cats won the outright championship with the victory on Saturday, not that you could tell on the postgame court.
There were no streamers, no postgame confetti or high fives among teammates. Instead, there was a team resolve to build off just another step on the ladder.
“We’re trying to win a national championship,” Davis said. “That’s our main goal. It’s a great honor but we’re not trying to stop here.”
Now the Cats are just two games away from becoming just the second team in the league since 1957 to navigate through the SEC without a loss. The other two teams were also from UK (1996 and 2003).
“It means a lot,” senior Darius Miller said. “It’s my last go-around. To end it on good notes like this, hopefully we can continue to go further.”
With Jeffery Taylor (19 points, nine rebounds) in a groove and the Wildcats struggling from the 3-point line, Kentucky found itself in an early hole and trailed at halftime, 37-36, for just the second time at Rupp Arena this season.
“I looked at my staff and I said, ‘You know, I’d like to let this one go, the way they started, to prove a point. I’m about to let this one go,’ ” Calipari said. “And then I said ,‘I can’t. I just don’t have it in me.’ ”
So the Wildcats roared back.
UK opened the half on a 6-0 run and pulled ahead by as many as 10 points with a Miller layup.
Miller was once again huge down the stretch as he scored all nine of his points in the final 10 minutes of the game, including seven during the 12-2 run that stretched the lead to 66-56. He was held scoreless until that point.
“We know at crunch time he’s going to make them,” Davis said. “That’s what he’s made for.”
But after Vanderbilt reeled off nine straight points, it was Davis who finished off the Commodores with two buzzer-beating shots.
Clinging to a 66-65 lead and four minutes left, the Rupp Arena crowd of 24,388 fans got restless as precious seconds ticked off the shot clock. Instead of taking the shot himself, dishing to the red-hot Miller or feeding super sophomores Jones or Doron Lamb, freshman point guard Marqus Teague fed Davis inside.
Davis calmly got the ball with his back to the basket and two seconds on the shot clock and displayed his rapidly evolving offensive game with a 10-foot fade-away as time expired. It touched nothing but net.
“I know my man went up to guard Marquis and he threw it right back to me,” Davis said. “I knew he was going to throw it to me so I wanted to make sure I was down and ready to put the shot up.”
Nearly three minutes later, with the shot clock once against nearing zero, Teague handed off to Davis at the left elbow, just inside the 3-point line. As if he were a 6-foot-3 guard again, Davis smoothly pulled up and buried the shot.
Leading 75-68 with 1:06 to play, it was the game’s final dagger.
“It seemed like every time they needed something, Davis got it done for them,” Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said. “He was spectacular. … That’s what great players do. They get those plays done at the end of the clock.”
Coach Cal gave Davis the green light last week to start taking more 3-pointers, and it looked like he had full freedom to do whatever he wanted Saturday as UK continues to let him develop his offensive game.
“You tell me, if you’re that kid blocking shots, rebounding balls, you’re not trying to take shots?” Calipari said.
But Davis said there was no emphasis Saturday to do anything different against one of the nation’s big men, Festus Ezeli. The new frontrunner for National Player of the Year said he simply took what the defensive gave him and hit shots that just weren’t falling at the beginning of the season.
“I wasn’t knocking down shots (earlier in the year),” Davis said. “If they fouled me I wasn’t making free throws. There were a lot of faults in my game. I just kept working on it and kept working on it. I didn’t catch a lob today but we were still able to find ways to score the ball.”
If there were faults before, there aren’t many now.
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