Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Kentucky head coach John Calipari saw plenty that he liked in last night’s foul fest against Vanderbilt.
For while the Wildcats’ preferred and most effective style of ball is to get up and down the floor in a hurry, the ability to play in a choppy, grind-it-out fashion has value too, and the Cats recognized that Tuesday night.
“We need close games,” freshman guard De’Aaron Fox said. “It’s just important for us to show people that we can win these tough games. We had a tough game against North Carolina and it’s just something that we need to build towards. We’re a young team, so people think they can get us in a close game and we don’t have the experience to be able to win games like that.”
Coach Cal was also happy that his team went just 1 for 9 from distance against Vanderbilt.
Like many teams, when Kentucky (14-2, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) is feeling it from outside it’s very difficult to beat. When it went 13 for 25 from 3-point range against Texas A&M on Jan. 3 it won by 42 points. But going 1 for 9 and still getting the win – on the road, no less – may say even more about UK.
“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.”
Malik Monk, who leads the SEC in scoring and is shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range, hit just 6-of-15 shots against Vanderbilt, including 1-of-4 3-point attempts. And yet, UK was still able to win thanks to a career-effort from Isaiah Briscoe and a second half to remember from Fox.
So, in addition to learning it can win in a grind-it-out style game in which it hits just one 3-point basket, Kentucky also learned it doesn’t need a heroic effort from its leading scorer. Instead, it needs just a slightly below average one (by his standards), because it has other players to step up when called upon.
And when the game got down to the nitty gritty, it was young Kentucky that executed down the stretch. The Wildcats scored on each of their final six possessions of the game to maintain a lead on a Vanderbilt team that was beginning to hit its 3-point shots and a crowd that was at its loudest all night.
It started with an offensive rebound and layup by Briscoe with 2:51 on the clock to give UK a five-point lead. After a 3-pointer from Vanderbilt, Fox missed a jumper, but Bam Adebayo tipped the offensive rebound out, and Briscoe would once again finish at the rim to put UK up four. Another 3-pointer by Vanderbilt cut the Cats’ lead to one, but Fox answered with a layup with 1:17 remaining. Following one free throw by Vanderbilt, Monk hit a beautiful floater to put UK up four again with 32 seconds to go. Vandy would cut it to two with a layup, but Monk went 4 for 4 at the foul line in the final 17 seconds to seal the win.
“I think down the stretch, we executed all our plays,” Fox said. “We got layups, midrange shots that we needed and we made some tough free throws. So, it just showed people that even in a close game we can still execute.”
“(It was) a good win for us,” Calipari said.
Coach Cal’s guys in the NBA (Jan. 4-10)