The Kentucky Wildcats began their final three-game stretch and quest for the SEC crown at Vanderbilt against a Dores squad playing desperate for a resume-boosting win.
A win here would all but lock up Vandy's spot in the Big Dance, while a win for the Cats would put them one step closer to clinching another regular-season conference crown, so this had all of the makings of a great game that would come down to the wire.
At least, that's how most of UK's road games have gone, and this turned out to be another one of them. Though UK led 39-36 at halftime, Vandy would storm back and take command in the second half while never trailing after the 15:30 mark. UK had several chances to cut the deficit to single digits in the final minutes, but never could capitalize and ultimately fell 74-62.
Here's our quick takeaways from the game.
Blazing Fast Start
In terms of early hot starts by UK and their opponent, this may have been the best game of the year in that regard. The Cats and Dores both got off to fast starts on the offensive end as this was looking more like an NBA game than an SEC affair.
Vandy got it started with the game's first four points before the Cats answered with 10 straight, all of which coming from Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.
The two teams had combined for 20 points by the 15:56 mark, though most of the damage was being done by the Cats thanks to their 13-3 run after trailing 4-0. Both teams cooled off a bit as the half wore on, but that was still a fun spurt of basketball to watch, especially with how bad the rest of the game would be at times...
Alex The 5
Few would have envisioned Alex Poythress ever getting significant playing time at the 5 spot coming into the season, but injuries and the struggles of Skal have led to that happening. Back when Willis first got into the starting lineup, UK found great offensive success with him at the 4 and Poythress at the 5.
But then Alex's knee procedure led to Lee and Isaac splitting time at the 5. Even though Isaac did well during Tuesday's win over Bama, UK opted for Poythress to go back to the starting 5 for this game to better match up with Dores big man Damian Jones, a versatile guy who can spread the floor and needs a more agile defender like Alex to contain him.
While he did okay defending the likes of Jones and fellow 7-footer Luke Kornet, it took everything the 6-8 Poythress had to keep those too off the boards and doing too much damage scoring. That helped lead to him being ineffective on the offensive end, not to mention he picked up two fouls by the 8:03 mark of the first half.
This isn't a recipe for a deep NCAA Tournament run, so hopefully Isaac is able to keep improving while others step up and help offset UK's lack of depth in the paint.
As has been the case many times this season, this was a game to forget for Skal Labissiere. Almost as soon as Alex picked up his second foul, Skal came into the game and proceeded to give up an and-1 drive by Wade Baldwin, followed by a layup by Kornet, then picked up his second foul on the ensuing possession.
That was six straight points Vandy got thanks to Skal, who continues to look nothing like someone who should consider the NBA Draft. This isn't to criticize Skal for what he is though. It's not his fault that talkings heads, college coaches and even NBA scouts had him projected as a top-five pick needing just one year of college.
Skal is what he is. Hopefully he and his family see that and realize he needs another year of college.
Murray Still Sizzling
This was a game UK needed, and Murray played like he knew it while doing everything he could to get his team a win. He lit up the Dores with a first half to remember, scoring 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting with 4-of-5 made threes. Even his one miss from deep went in and out as he continues to be as dialed in as just about any shooter in UK history has looked.
At the 9:58 mark of the first half, Murray had scored 11 of UK's 18 points as the game was tied at 18-all. He cooled off a bit until the 6:30 mark when he scored 10 of UK's next 14 points and was the only reason the Cats led 39-36 at the half.
Murray's 21 points are the most points by a Wildcat in the first half this season.— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 27, 2016
Murray's 21 points are also the most of any Wildcat in the first half in the John Calipari era.— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 27, 2016
Murray would keep it going in the second half and did his best to keep UK in it, but it wasn't enough as no other Wildcat stepped up. Murray finished with 33 points while every other Cats combined for 29.
That's not winning basketball, but it was still fun watching Murray continue to light up the scoreboard.
It was clear from the jump that the Dores had one clear goal in this one: stop Tyler Ulis.
Anytime Ulis got the ball, he was hounded by Vandy defenders and rarely got any breathing room. While he's been able to deal with that as well as anyone this year, he could not on this day as he finished with 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting.
He was badly worn down as the game wound down and simply couldn't buy a bucket, even when UK was still in striking distance. This probably ended any hope of Ulis winning any National Player of the Year awards, even though he deserves to be in the discussions. This was one bad game by a player who rarely has them, but unfortunately, his team has lost far too often this year even when he's played great.
Offense Goes Ice Cold
You can't fault Ulis though. Even though Murray was hot, no other Cats did anything offensively, which allowed Vandy to focus most of their efforts on Ulis the whole game and Murray in the second half. That helped lead to UK going cold down the stretch, including a stretch of hitting just one field goal over the final 10 minutes while failing to score in the last 3:47.
This was easily one of, if not the worst, offensive halves of basketball Kentucky has played this season, and it came after a great first half. Maybe UK just ran out of gas while Vandy was just playing desperate throughout, but this is a bad loss for the Cats as we're now just two weeks from Selection Sunday.