Kentucky’s 78-64 win vs. Vanderbilt at Memorial Gymnasium Tuesday night was a tale of two halves.
The first, anyone can beat this Kentucky team if they don’t defend and choose to play to the level of their competition. The second, Kentucky can be dominant and steamroll an opponent when everyone is playing well.
Sure, Vanderbilt isn’t the toughest opponent, but Memorial Gymnasium formed enough magic for the Commodores to send LSU home to Baton Rouge with a loss a week ago. Kentucky hadn’t shown the ability to overpower and dominate an opponent in a long time and they finally did over the final 24 minutes vs. the Commodores.
With 3:51 remaining in the first half, Vanderbilt held a 36-22 lead. 23 minutes and 51 seconds of game clock later, Kentucky had outscored the Commodores 56-28 to turn a 14-point deficit into a 14-point victory.
“This team, the whole point of this is them learning about themselves,” John Calipari said. “And I said it at halftime ‘they made eight threes guys. And we missed five one-foot shots. This is going to be what the score is.’ I said we’re going through Nick and this is what we’re doing and let’s play off of him and see how it works because you guys are missing.”
That’s just what Kentucky did to start the second half, but it was Richards’ defense that sparked the Wildcats run. The junior big man swatted three Vandy shots in the first few minutes of the second half to elevate the energy. By the time Tyrese Maxey’s layup with 11:16 remaining put Kentucky in the lead for the first time all game, the Wildcats were rolling.
Entering the half, Kentucky trailed in majority of statistical categories in the box score. Vandy held an advantage in shooting percentage, three-point shooting, turnovers, points off turnovers, rebounding, offensive rebounding and second chance points. Kentucky flipped those in their favor during the second half, doing so in dominant fashion.
Kentucky’s big four of Maxey, Richards, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley all played well, especially in the second frame.
Maxey led the way offensively, scoring a game-high 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three-point range.
While Maxey was the scorer, Hagans stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists, falling just shy of the fourth triple-double in UK history.
Quickley powered through a quiet first half by scoring 13 of his 18 points in the second, none bigger than back-to-back three-pointers to extend Kentucky’s five point lead to eleven with 3:04 to play.
Those shots were the daggers Quickley has been throwing for much of SEC play, where he is now averaging 17.5 points while shooting 48 percent from three-point range in eleven league games. Additionally, he connected on 7-of-7 free throw attempts to raise his percentage to 92.5 percent which ranks second nationally and first in the SEC.
Kentucky established their presence at the rim during the second half, posting a 28-10 advantage in the paint. John Calipari’s club also valued possessions as they only committed three turnovers in the second half. That said, the most encouraging statistic was the rebounding margin, specifically the lack of offensive rebounds and second chance points Kentucky surrendered in the final twenty minutes.
In their previous three games vs. Auburn, Mississippi State and Tennessee, along with the first half Tuesday vs. Vanderbilt, opponents totaled 53 offensive rebounds and 69 second chance points. In the final half vs. Vandy, Kentucky gave up 2 offensive rebounds and zero second chance points, a massive improvement.
While Vanderbilt isn’t an elite or overpowering opponent, Kentucky showed they can be and that’s a step in the right direction.