The Kentucky Wildcats had a horrible first half in Nashville, then came alive in the second half to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores, 78-64. The Wildcats improve to 19-5 on the season and now have a record of 9-2 in SEC play.
This, after the Cats trailed by double digits much of the first half, then outscored Vandy 51-28 in the second half in arguably the best half of basketball this Kentucky team has played this season.
After struggling mightily in the first half, Ashton Hagans flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. The Cats were led in scoring by Tyrese Maxey with 25, and both Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards came on strong late to finish with 18 and 12, respectively.
Here are five things to know from win No. 19 for the Wildcats.
Good Maxey day
In a game where the Wildcats struggled to score early, Tyrese Maxey really stepped up. He had eight of the team’s first 11 points, and finished the game with 25. He scored from all three levels and really excelled in transition in the second half to help the Cats rally for a double-digit win after it appeared they may lose by double figures to the Dores.
In a game where Immanuel Quickley was not himself from a shooting standpoint (though he hit two big threes in the final minutes), Maxey answered the call to fill in the gap. Just think how strong this offense will be when both of them decide to consistently hit shots on the same day.
Dunk the ball!
I have double checked the numbers, and, as a team, Kentucky missed 1,222,321 lay-ups against Vanderbilt. A lay-up is literally the easiest shot a player can take. And while some of these misses were contested, a great number of them were not.
You may have noticed that, midway through the second half, Hagans and Maxey started dunking the ball. That is because it is easier to ensure the ball going through the hoop if you actually throw it in there from point blank range.
For most, if not all, of these guys, dunking the ball is definitely an option in many situations. So why do they normally opt to lay the ball in? I think we will see that change moving forward.
Kentucky obviously had a height advantage going into the game. And while Vanderbilt did their best to spread the floor, the Kentucky bigs got their hands on lots of basketballs tonight.
The Wildcats blocked 12 shots on the night, with Richards, EJ Montgomery, and Nate Sestina each having three of them. Heck, even Tyrese Maxey blocked a pair of shots.
While the height and length dependency did play a role in this block party, the effort by all these guys really made all the difference.
Real defensive concern
Yes, I know Vandy shot the lights out early. But they did not do that in a vacuum. The Wildcats consistently got beat off the dribble and were burned by not helping the helper.
With the Commodores spreading five players on the perimeter, it made it near impossible early for Nick Richards to stay in the paint and protect the basket. This led to more help than normal from perimeter defenders and created open looks for shooters all night.
The bad news? This is exactly what mid-majors and lower tournament seeds are going to do in the NCAA Tournament. In this scenario, the Cats are obviously vulnerable and Vanderbilt exposed that tonight.
The good news? They have now seen it. They have tape on themselves struggling to lock down an inferior offense that keeps them off balance by constantly driving and kicking. Hopefully they can learn from this experience and it will pay off next month (yes, March is that close).
Of course all of Big Blue Nation would rather see blowouts night-in and night-out. But to see a team battle back from a 14 point deficit to win on the road is certainly satisfying and shows a lot of character for a team still growing.
Come March, games like this will pay off for Kentucky when it really counts. It is certainly frustrating to watch in the moment, but we should all be thankful for these struggles when they happen in February.
Now let’s talk about the win!