Following an incredible comeback victory at West Virginia on Saturday, the Wildcats did it again in thrilling fashion against Vanderbilt Tuesday night, notching an 83-81 overtime win thanks to a layup from Quade Green with 4.3 seconds in the extra period.
But it was no easy task getting the game to overtime, as Kentucky trailed for the entire second half, at one point by as many as 14. But the Cats clawed back, slowly but surely, thanks to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s leadership and a couple of key misses at the free throw line from Vanderbilt players late.
And it was Gilgeous-Alexander that nailed two free throws with ice in his veins to finally tie Vanderbilt and Kentucky at 71 and send the game to OT.
Like his impressive performance at Vanderbilt earlier this month, Gilgeous-Alexander was the leading scorer for the Cats, tallying a career-high 30 points off of 12-of-19 shooting from the field.
Quade Green had his best scoring night since returning from a three-game layoff due to injury. The freshman notched 12 points including 2-of-4 shooting from three-point land, to add to his game-winning layup. Kevin Knox scored 18, and Nick Richards added 10 for Wildcats in double figures.
#21 Kentucky now moves to 17-5 on the year, 6-3 in the SEC.
After the win, head coach John Calipari was sidelined after battling an illness, so Kenny Payne met with the media to recap the win. Here’s everything Payne had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:
KENNY PAYNE: To walk in these doors, for a freshmen (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) in college to walk in these doors and on the biggest stage in college basketball and play against every night teams that are geared to beating you and that’s living their whole basketball career to beat the Kentucky’s in the SEC. For that kid to come out the way he did for us to win says a lot about him. That was adversity throughout the game for him, he kept fighting. Same with Kevin (Knox). The way Kevin finished this game, opposed to the way he started it? Big. Big for him. Because that was pressure on him, as an example, a kid comes off a game where he has 34 points, he’s second guessing, am I expected to do this every night? Well, as you see, the answer is yes and sometimes it doesn’t go that way.
Q. You guys are down 14 and immediately you go on the attack. Also with Shai attacking are you surprised that no one hardly can stop him once he gets going to the basket?
KENNY PAYNE: All year he’s been really good at getting in the lane. We chart lane touches and every game he is our No. 1 guy that touches-to-lane. He’s a really good player, he’s hungry, he’s a high-character kid that comes to work every day and smiles and I mean it’s an example of why you come to this school and develop and learn and to be the best.
Q. Kenny, how significant to you is it that Quade Green, a guy who lost his starting job to Shai, for one reason or another, and Shai has taken so much shine and tonight was having so much shine, is the guy who gets to make the winning play and gets to be at the bottom of that dog pile out there?
KENNY PAYNE: I don’t know exactly how many seconds was on that clock when he got the layup, but how about his poise? There’s a lot other things that he could have done and he had the poise to drive that ball to the basket and roll the ball over somebody’s head and lay it in the basket. I mean, that shows his maturity as a player and he made a big play in a tough situation.
Q. Could you talk about, up until the 30 minutes or so, what was kind of wrong with your team? It seemed to lack energy, focus, execution, I don’t know, you tell me.
KENNY PAYNE: We’re trying to teach young kids toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness, toughness through adversity, to play the game with a fire, with a desire that and a will to win, a will to dominate your position, a will to play together and no matter what the other team does, no matter what calls go against you, you fight to get that win. That’s what we’re teaching. At times it’s hard because you’re dealing with young kids’ emotions. On the floor you can see it. There are guys out there that are not having success, they put their heads down. There are guys out there that they’re learning about who they are, they’re seeing adversity for the first time and in the meantime we’re saying, step to the side, we got to win this game. So it’s hard, it’s really, really hard doing what we do, but on the flip side, who would want to be anywhere else other than this doing this?
Q. Vandy outrebounded you guys and had more points in the paint, is there anything specific that let that happen, allowed that to happen?
KENNY PAYNE: Definitely. We knew for the last three days that Vanderbilt was going to drive us. The first time we played them there were 12 plays where it was either a straight line drive or a turn down on a ball screen. That’s 20-something points. When you watch us play them the first time it was obvious what they were going to do. They’re not going to settle for threes and move the ball around the horn and not penetrate and just shoot three. They’re going to put us on our heels and try to get down the lane and make plays. The Roberson kid (Jeff Roberson) was unbelievable tonight. He really hurt us. He out played P.J. (Washington) and Jarred (Vanderbilt) and Wenyen Gabriel. He was really, really good. But in the end we kept fighting. I mean my hat goes off to them because they played so hard and you could say they deserved to win, but welcome to Kentucky.
Q. (Riley) LaChance and Roberson both had four fouls for an awful lot of the second half. Were you trying to go at them and get a fifth foul on them or not?
KENNY PAYNE: We were trying to get in the lane. What we did down the stretch of the game, whoever Roberson was guarding, the opposite big went up to set the ball screen on Shai. So we didn’t want him, because he can switch and guard a smaller guard, he can guard a Shai (Gilgeous-) Alexander on a switch, so we just went opposite, whichever one that the five man was guarding, the other big went and set the ball screen and it happened to be P.J. And Shai again, what he did to get in that lane and finish those plays was big for us.
Q. The way you guys won at West Virginia and then the way you won tonight, how much do you believe in like a momentum building that’s creating something here?
KENNY PAYNE: I think that the fact that we’re winning these games is important. So that shows there’s a will to win, but, my goodness, I wish it was a little easier. I would like for us as a team -- and I’m sure Cal’s the same -- to play those last five or six minutes, play the game like that and let’s see how good we are. Let’s all 12 guys or 14 guys that suited up in the jersey, you step on that floor, all of you guys are playing 40 minutes of basketball the way you ended that game, the way you ended the five minutes at West Virginia, and let’s see how good we are. If we can figure that out, man, we’re going to be tough to beat.
Q. With about nine or 10 seconds left in regulation y’all needed a three to tie. They gave Quade the lane, he drove the ball and scored. What’s the strategy that late in the game when you go for the tie or go for whatever you can get?
KENNY PAYNE: He had a wide open lane, take a quick two or get us a three. Quick two was there, he took it. There was time for us, obviously, to get the basket, get another foul. It worked out, it was really good.
Q. Is there any kind of worry that this teaches young guys it’s okay to fall behind two straight games going down double digits or are you just happy with the fight?
KENNY PAYNE: I’m not happy at all. I’m sure Coach Calipari is not happy at all. We are thankful we won the game, but the coaching staff’s not happy because we’re trying to trend in a direction. We’re trying to build this team up to play a certain way to be ready for SEC Tournament play, to be ready for an NCAA run and to be honest with you, the way we played that first half, tentative, not aggressive, not communicating on defense. Defensive lapses, you’re going to get beat if you’re playing tournament basketball like that. So are we content? Not at all. Will we be harder on the players? Believe me, we will.