NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For weeks John Calipari has been saying he wanted to see how his No. 1 team responded when it took a potential knockout blow from a good team.
He enjoyed the last four Kentucky wins by 20 or more points, but the UK¿coach knew to win a national championship his team would have to show its mettle in a grind it out, rugged game. And preferably one on the road.
Well, he got what he wanted Saturday night against Vanderbilt, and he has to like the end result, a 69-63 UK win, even if he did take exception with some part of the second half when UK allowed a 13-point halftime lead to disappear. Kentucky’s suffocating defense that allowed 23 points the first half gave up 25 points in eight minutes to star the second half. Yet with the game on the line, UK’s defense again put the stops together — Vanderbilt missed its last nine shots and didn’t score in the final 4 minutes, 10 seconds — it took to win and all but end the Southeastern Conference championship race since the Cats have a three-game lead with five to go.
“I would be very surprised if we don’t win it because I don’t think we will lose that many games,” said UK¿freshman point guard Marquis Teague.
Many thought this might be the one SEC game UK¿would lose. Instead, Kentucky kept that “will to win” players have talked about and overcame a 64-61 deficit in the final four minutes.
“That was two teams slugging it out,” Calipari said, “They weren’t going to go away. We weren’t. We made a couple of shots, they missed. That’s why we won. Hats off to them and their fans. What a great environment this was. This is why we do what we do as coaches and players. We got up (in the first half) and has our chances (to break the game open) and had a break down on two or three plays to let them back in.”
Once again Kentucky’s constant was Anthony Davis — 15 points, eight rebounds, seven blocks. He went against Festus Ezeli, perhaps the strongest post player in the country, and held his ground. He got a late block to seal the win as well as several crucial baskets on mainly effort in the second half when UK¿needed them in the worst way.
“He is a strong player with great post moves. He is really strong and physical. It was really a challenge to see how physical I am,” Davis said “It helped a lot that my teammates were digging in on him to start the game and making it hard inside the paint. It was a great challenge for me, but also for the team.”
Terrence Jones had 14 points (all in the first half), nine rebounds, four blocks and two steals. Point guard Marquis Teague was stopped only by Vanderbilt’s zone and had 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
“I thought he was outstanding. He broke down defensively twice on big plays and I told them those were huge in this game,” Calipari said. “He told me, ‘I got you and they are not scoring again’ and I do not know if they did.”
Teague’s biggest assist came with 1:05 left when he was falling down, avoided walking and got the ball inside to Darius Miller who elevated between defenders and scored.
“I slipped and saw him cut back down and did not want to get called for a travel, so I bounced a pass and he scored,” Teague said.
It was part of a clutch finish for Miller, who got three fouls in the first half and a fourth early in the second half. But he hit UK’s first 3-pointer of the game with 10:35 left to break a 48-48 tie, and also had two key assists in the final minutes. He was so clutch that Calipari elected to keep him in the game and not use Jones.
“Terrence started a little shaky, then was an absolute man,” Calipari said. “Down the stretch, I went with Darius and stayed with him because he was playing well but it had nothing to do with Terrence.”
Vanderbilt hit 10 of its first 14 shots in the second half, but only five of its last 20. After getting 25 points in eight minutes to open the second half, the Commodores got 15 in the final 12 minutes against the type of defense UK has been playing the last three weeks.
“We did a lot of good stuff. It was a good, hard, tough game. In the second half, they basically beat us pretty good,” Calipari said. “We are a young team. We break down defensively at times. But at the end of the day, I think we did pretty good and hung in there.”
Which is just what the veteran coach wanted to see if his “young team” could do.