NASHVILLE, Tenn. – This was the big test.
After weeks of early morning conditioning sessions, extra time together and two-a-day practices, this was the game to show that Camp Cal was starting to pay off. John Calipari had said all along that it would take time for his month-long efforts to take effect, but his hope coming into the Vanderbilt game was to see some on-court improvement. “Demonstrated performance” was how he termed it the day before.
If that was indeed the hope, Thursday’s 60-58 squeaker over Vanderbilt was a disappointment despite opening Southeastern Conference play with a win.
So much of Camp Cal – from the early morning workouts to the heart monitors to Rock Oliver’s presence – was about working harder than the guy each Wildcat was matched up against. In the first game of SEC play, the results weren’t there.
“They outworked us,” Coach Cal said. “They beat us to 50-50 balls. They beat us to long rebounds. We were lucky to win the game.”
Kentucky blew a 16-point second-half lead, went nearly eight minutes without a point and gave up a whopping 20 offensive rebounds, the most since the season opener against Maryland.
The Cats did just enough down the stretch to hang on when Kedren Johnson missed a 3-point shot at the buzzer, but there was obvious disappointment in what the Cats hoped would be a turning point in their 10-4 season.
“The second half they came out with more smash-mouth basketball (than us),” said freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, who stuffed the stat sheet with seven points, eight rebounds, four blocks and four assists. “They just came out straight up like, pushing us under. We didn’t respond like we were supposed to and push back and go get it. We kind of let them push us under. We’ve got to change that. Every SEC game is going to be like that from here on out.”
The Cats, thanks to Vanderbilt’s 27.6 percent shooting in the first half, cruised into halftime with a 35-24 lead. Given the Commodores’ offensive struggles this season – Vandy is averaging less than 60 points per game – the lead looked insurmountable when UK took a 47-31 lead with 13:48 left in the game.
Coming into SEC play, Coach Cal warned his players that the league would feature better competition and tougher games, but the first-year players had trouble believing that when they took control early and Vanderbilt couldn’t find the bottom of the basket.
After missing their first 10 3-point attempts to start the game, the perimeter-relying Commodores found their touch from behind the arc and shot their way back into the game.
“We were up so much that, as a freshman, I was thinking, ‘Whoa, this is not what Coach was saying,’ ” Cauley-Stein said. “And then just like that it turns around and we’re down by one and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘Dang, we’ve got to dig down and pull this out.’ ”
The ‘Dores hit three 3-pointers during an 18-0 second-half run that gave them a two-point lead. Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings went to a 2-3 zone during the run, the same look that doomed Kentucky in last year’s SEC Tournament championship.
“We got tentative,” Calipari said. “We’ve been playing great against zone. Now all of a sudden guys don’t want to take shots. My shooter catches it and passes it so quick. He played Hot Potato, like the ball was hot. Well, we want you to shoot. That’s why we’re passing it to you.”
Nerlens Noel finally broke the scoring drought with a free throw and Ryan Harrow got the lead back with a 3-pointer from the wing.
Johnson, who scored a game-high 18 points, tied it at 54-54 with a trey, but Kyle Wiltjer hit a key jumper and Noel floated in a shot to put the Cats up four with 17.6 seconds to play.
“Those were big plays for young kids to make,” Coach Cal said.
Noel’s shot was highly controversial as replays seemed to indicate that he didn’t release the ball before the shot clock hit zero. The refs didn’t call it, and shot-clock violations are not reviewable.
“That was good,” Harrow said, smiling at what his team got away with. “Way before the clock went off.”
Vanderbilt appeared to get a makeup call with seconds to go when an in-bounds pass was called off Julius Mays, but the final call didn’t matter when Johnson’s 3-point attempt bounced off the back iron.
The fact that his team could go nearly eight minutes without a point, nine minutes without a field goal and somehow still win was good enough to satisfy Coach Cal for a night.
“I’m happy we won,” Caliapri said. “You got to understand, I’ve been doing this 20-something years. When we win, I’m happy. When we lose, I’m devastated. We won.”
Calipari was actually pleased with the progress his team showed in the first 25 minutes, but glaring issues will trouble the fourth-year UK coach on Friday during quick turnaround prep for Saturday’s Texas A&M game. Specifically, Calipari continues to be unsatisfied with Alex Poythress’ effort level and Kyle Wiltjer’s defense.
Of the 24 points UK allowed in the first half, Calipari said Wiltjer accounted for 14 of them.
“You can sit here and sugarcoat it, but you all watched it,” Calipari said. “They went at Kyle every single possession I had him in the game. Every single possession.”
Asked how a slow-footed Wiltjer could play defense the way he wants him to, Coach Cal’s advice was simple: Figure it out.
“You either don’t stay in the game or figure it out,” Calipari said. “Fight or we’ll figure it out. Bill Laimbeer and all those guys that were like him, you just figure it out. You play lower, you play tougher, you do anything you can to stay in the game. Or you accept it and then you’re not playing. And we need Kyle in the game. … I think he can do it, but he’s got to make his mind up that I’m not settling for this.”
Calipari also wanted more effort from Poythress, whose lack of energy has been the focus of Coach Cal for the last few weeks. Calipari was hoping that Poythress’ homecoming might be enough to charge his freshman forward, but Poythress fouled out with seven points, six rebounds and four turnovers.
Poythress had zero offensive rebounds while giving up five to the man he was guarding, Coach Cal said.
“Either you want to change or you think you’re OK,” Calipari told Poythress. “That kid outworked him and I believe that kid’s a freshman. He outworked him. Ran the court harder, went after balls harder, rebounded better. You can’t let it happen. It’s not acceptable.”
Survive-and-advance doesn’t usually apply to a team during regular-season play, but given the youth and inconsistencies of this team, Kentucky will take wins any way it can get them in a wide-open SEC.
“Even though it was an ugly win, at least we came out with the win,” Harrow said.
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