Following emotional senior recognitions Tuesday night, including the engagement proposal by Derek Willis to his girlfriend Keely Potts, the Kentucky Wildcats faced yet another slow start against the visiting Vanderbilt Commodores.
Kentucky found themselves down by as many as 19 yet rallied in the second half for the biggest comeback win in the Calipari era, 73-67. The previous largest comeback was 18 points in 2009 over Miami of Ohio. Kentucky recognized Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder before tip-off of the last home game they’d ever play.
Hawkins was so into the moment that he didn’t even realize his team got down by such a large margin.
“I really didn’t know we were down 19. I thought we were only down like 10 to 12,” said Hawkins. “Everybody was together. When we play together, I feel like we’re a great team. Early on, we weren’t playing together as a team and turning the ball over too much, but down the stretch we didn’t have too many turnovers and people were able to execute the offensive plays.”
Though the Wildcats were trailing 25-6 in the first ten minutes, Kentucky fans refused to be silenced. An abundance of hustle plays by Willis, Hawkins and Mulder spiked the Cats to bring the deficit down to 6 at halftime, trailing 30-24. It was the fewest scored points by Kentucky since scoring just 22 against Louisville in 2014.
“I just feel like we weren’t aggressive enough, is what it was,” Hawkins said of the slow start. “We were settling for a lot of shots, jump shots. Coach Cal just told us to attack the rim and listen to him when we run plays. There were times that we weren’t focused enough and just running our own stuff and doing things that he didn’t want us to do. When we were able to be together, we were able to make a run.”
Isaiah Briscoe didn’t think the Cats started off slow as much as their shots simply weren’t falling while Vandy was hitting three after three to build a big lead.
“I don’t think we started off slow, but we were missing shots and they were making shots,” said Briscoe. “That happens. We always told each other they’re not going to continue to make shots like this the whole game, just keep fighting, keep fighting and we came out with the win.”
Then, just like the Florida win, Kentucky outscored Vanderbilt by double digits in the second half to win. The rally came in large part because of Kentucky pressing Vandy, which led to 18 turnovers.
“We just were trying put pressure on them,’ said Hawkins. “We were trapping and scrambling all over the floor. That’s the type that you have to pressure, because when they move the ball good they execute their offense.”
Briscoe knew that speeding up Vandy point guards was something Kentucky could thrive off of.
“Yeah, I think that’s what Coach wanted, to speed the point guard up, get him playing fast and get him to make basketball plays,” said Isaiah Briscoe after the game “Sped him up, turned him over a few times, we got the momentum, the crowd was into it and we feed off their energy.
“I think talking, just scrambling. Coach made the adjustment kind of early in the second half. Just wanted to speed them up a little bit. Actually, in the first half too, I think. Just wanted to speed them up.”
The Wildcats relied heavily on their guards to pull off the comeback and the three studs could not have answered any better. Tied at 62 with 2:15 left in the game, De’Aaron Fox hit a jumper to put Kentucky up a score.
After the Wildcats forced a turnover on the next possession, Isaiah Briscoe came down the court for a put-back layup to take the lead 66-62. Then, after forcing a Commodore miss, Malik Monk came down the court to hit the game-sealing 3 pointer with 48 seconds left.
Monk finished the game with 27 points on 8-21 shooting and made 9-10 free throws. Fox was held in check as far as getting teammates involved but did score 13 points on 5-9 shooting. Briscoe was more of the facilitator, scoring just 7 points but dishing out 6 assists and snatching 7 rebounds. Bam Adebayo continued his monstrous play with 16 points and 6 rebounds with a block.
While Willis hit just one three, it was one that started the comeback in the second half. Willis also denied anyone who came near the rim, recording 3 blocks. Mulder & Hawkins combined for just 7 points on 3-6 shooting but made the clutch plays when it mattered.
“It was one of them nights where shots weren’t falling in the first half,” said Willis after the game. “We started off slow and the Vandy players, they were running their patterns and got some open 3s. The corner 3s were killing us, but we just fight through it. It’s part of our culture. We have games like that. It’s just going to get us ready for tournament time. I feel like this is what it all comes down to.”
Here are the postgame notes from the final game in Rupp this season, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Team Records and Series Notes
- Kentucky has won seven in a row and is 25-5 overall.
- UK is 15-2 in the Southeastern Conference and clinches a tie for its 48th regular-season league championship with one game to play. It is UK’s fifth crown in eight seasons under John Calipari.
- Vanderbilt ended a four-game winning streak and is 16-14 overall, 9-8 in league play.
- Kentucky leads the series 143-47, including 80-14 in Lexington.
In the First Half
- Kentucky’s starting lineup featured seniors Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, along with Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo.
- Vanderbilt jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
- De’Aaron Fox got a 3-point shot early in the game, extending UK’s streak of 1,004 consecutive games with a triple.
- Ahead 11-6, Vanderbilt utilized a 14-0 run for a 25-6 lead with 8:03 remaining in the half.
- Kentucky responded with a 9-0 spurt to get back within 25-15.
- UK continued to edge closer, narrowing Vanderbilt’s lead to 30-24 at halftime. It is the fewest points UK scored in any half this season.
In the Second Half
- Vanderbilt got hot again and built a 47-34 lead.
- UK had an 8-0 run to make it 47-42 but VU’s Jeff Roberson hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to blunt the momentum.
- Down 53-44, UK rallied again with a 10-1 run to tie the game at 54.
- UK earned its first lead of the game, 59-57, when Willis hit a 3-pointer with 4:46 remaining.
- Tied at 62, Fox made a free-throw line jumper, Briscoe followed with a tip-in and Monk swished a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 69-62 lead.
- VU kept fighting, with a pair of foul shots and a 3-pointer by Luke Kornet to get back to 69-67.
- UK held on with Monk sinking four straight foul shots to preserve the win.
- Kentucky’s rally from 19 points down is the biggest comeback win in the Calipari era.
- The previous largest deficit in the Calipari era was 18 points vs. Miami (Ohio), 36-18, with 7:04 left in the first half on Nov. 16, 2009. UK stormed back to win 72-70. It marked just the second game in Calipari’s UK coaching tenure.
- John Calipari is believed to be the first head coach to win at least five regular-season conference championships at three different schools.
- UK’s 19-point comeback deficit is its largest comeback since rallying from a 22-point deficit at Vanderbilt on Feb. 22, 1997.
- With Kentucky’s win, the Wildcats have clinched the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament
- Kentucky held Vanderbilt to 67 points.
- UK is 16-0 this season when limiting the opponent to 72 or fewer points.
- Kentucky shot 43.6 percent from the field. UK is 24-1 this season when shooting at least 42 percent.
- Kentucky won the rebounding battle for the seventh straight game – coinciding with the seven-game win streak – 33-28.
- UK has outrebounded opponents by 10.9 boards per game during the current seven-game win streak.
- UK is 21-2 this season when outrebounding the opponent.
- In the decisive second half, UK won turnovers 10-2 and capitalized by winning points off turnovers 17-0.
- UK won bench points 40-8, featuring 27 points from Monk and 13 by Fox.
- Kentucky honored seniors Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis before the game.
- Calipari has a 687-192 (.782) on-court record, including a 242-52 (.823) mark at UK.
- Kentucky has an all-time mark of 561-66 (.895) in Rupp Arena.
- UK is 134-6 (.957) at Rupp Arena under John Calipari.
- UK finished the season 14-2 at home, including 8-0 in the SEC.
Kentucky’s matchup with Texas A&M will be the Wildcats final test of the regular season as they will begin the SEC Tournament starting next week. Tip-off against A&M is set for 12 P.M. Saturday afternoon.