NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The first three games of Southeastern Conference play saw No. 6/6 Kentucky go up and down the floor at will, scoring with ease.
Tuesday night’s game against Vanderbilt forced the Wildcats to play a different style of ball, and they still came through with the game on the line.
“I mean, an exciting game, it’s just that it’s a different game for us and we need all these kind of games to show us where we gotta go,” UK head coach John Calipari said.
In a game that saw 43 fouls called and 56 free throws attempted, Kentucky showed that it can win games by not only getting up and down the floor in transition, but also in a slower paced, grind-it-out matchup.
Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 SEC) scored just eight points off fast breaks and hit one 3-pointer, but went 18 for 24 at the foul line, shot 56.9 percent inside the arc and outrebounded Vanderbilt (8-8, 2-2 SEC) by six to win 87-81 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I just think that today we showed people that not only are we a transition team, but we can play in the half-court also,” Isaiah Briscoe said.
“I told them after the game, we were 1 for 9 from the 3 and I’m ecstatic, because when you’re 1 for 9 and you still win you prove to your team you do not need to make 3s to win,” Calipari said. “Many teams in this country if they’re not making 3s they got no chance of winning. We’re not one of them.”
Playing in a tough environment with an unusual court setup and a number of fouls to key players, the young Wildcats turned to Briscoe, their sophomore leader, for guidance. The pit bull of a guard answered with a career-high 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting, a team-high tying seven rebounds and a team-high five assists with just one turnover. He played 39 of the game’s 40 minutes.
“How about how he guarded the ball?” Calipari said of Briscoe. “He just went up and – he has a will to win. He’s – all the stuff that he needed to work on, he has. From his free-throw shooting to his 3 to his handle. His assist-to-turnover ratio is ridiculous. So I’m proud of him.”
Star freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk both picked up two fouls less than four minutes into the game, leaving Briscoe to run the offense and keep UK’s composure. He finished the first half with 10 points, including a layup with three seconds left, and dished out three assists with no turnovers. More importantly, he helped give UK a four-point lead going into the break while Fox and Monk didn’t add to their foul total.
“I knew it was going to be a tough game when we came out and the ref was calling easy fouls on De’Aaron and Malik,” Briscoe said. “So I knew when those two guys went out that’s a big part of our team, but we had guys come off the bench and step up. We held it down until the second half and then we won.”
After a career-high 27 points against Arkansas on Sunday, Calipari said Fox had been putting in extra time in the gym “mastering his craft.” Fox followed that up with 22 points against Vanderbilt, including 16 in the second half Tuesday night on 8-of-12 shots. The Houston native got to the rim at will, but also displayed a deft touch on a few midrange jumpers in transition that he’s been working on in practice.
“It’s just things that I’ve been working on the last few weeks,” Fox said. “It’s a lot of shots that teams are giving me and I just have to knock them down.”
After winning its first three conference games by an average of 30.3 points, and its 13 games overall by 23.1 points, the Wildcats did not have a whole lot of experience in tight-game situations. Despite that relative inexperience, they showed Tuesday they’re more than capable of coming through and making winning plays.
The Wildcats led by just three points with three minutes to play in the game Tuesday, and closed the game out by scoring on each of their final six possessions. Briscoe scored four points, Fox had two and Monk scored the game’s final six points, including four at the free-throw line.
“Look, I got good players,” Calipari said. “I’m sitting here, it’s not about me coaching. I’ve got really good players. My job is to get them more disciplined, more focused, playing when another team’s playing a certain way. But we got talented kids now. Watching this team play, you’ve got to have fun. Like, wow, this is fun watching them.”
Kentucky still has plenty to improve upon. It got just six points from its bench against Vandy, Calipari is still searching for more production behind freshman forward Bam Adebayo, and he’d like to see his team begin to become empowered despite the calendar saying it’s only Jan. 10.
Nevertheless, road wins in the league are always difficult to come by, especially in a game that rarely had a rhythm to it. With the fall spring semester beginning Wednesday and Camp Cal officially over, the Wildcats will get a day off and Calipari said he will enjoy the W.
“Like I told these guys, you gotta enjoy the wins,” Coach Cal said. “I’ve been doing this 30 years. Enjoy the wins. When we win a game, it’s not relief for me. It is joy. I am happy. And it was a hard-fought game, which even makes me happier.”
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