Tuesday night at Memorial Gymnasium may not have been the biggest game left on the conference slate for No. 12 Kentucky, but it brought one of the best performances in the young career of Tyrese Maxey.
Maxey, who was the only Wildcat to reach double figures at halftime with the Cats trailing 36-27 after Vanderbilt canned eight triples on 17 attempts in the first half, finished with a game-high 25 points in 38 minutes during Kentucky’s 78-64 comeback to sweep the Commodores and maintain a tie with LSU atop the SEC standings with seven games to play.
“For the first time this year, Tyrese Maxey played with a toughness to win versus just to play basketball,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after his team’s 11th win in the last 13 games.
“I’ve been all over this and all over him, and not settling. So, that was a good sign.”
Maxey only shot two free throws on the night, but cashed home three of his four attempts from long range, two coming when Kentucky needed them badly early on the game when Vanderbilt was getting open look after open look on the other end of the floor.
Tyrese Maxey had a big game last night, but he really was the lone reason Kentucky was in the game early.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Here’s the first of two triples he made to keep the ‘Cats in striking distance after Vandy got confused defensively and tried to draw a foul on Nick Richards with a flop. pic.twitter.com/HGqXogjx5E
This delivery from Hagans was absolutely perfect. He fades Maxey to the left corner (similarly to what he did for Quickley early in the Tennessee win in the other corner) and Maxey drains his second 3-ball. pic.twitter.com/5Eh173hhiU— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Despite the lack of a whistle at times at the rim, Maxey, along with the rest of Kentucky’s three musketeers in Ashton Hagans, who felt just short of a triple-double, and Immanuel Quickley, who stuck two deep daggers late, attacked the rim relentlessly and opened the game up for Kentucky in a 51-point second half performance.
Maxey is so deadly off these pindown curls where he can get deep into the lane and rise for that patented floater. Good screen from Sestina to free him up. pic.twitter.com/zRgKMQGjlq— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
One of the bread-and-butter plays for Maxey in the half-court for Kentucky is off a pindown screen. He’ll take mid-range jumpers off them, but where he’s at his best is when he has the space off the pick to get into the lane and rise for one of his well-known floaters with the softest touch.
Kentucky had an issue with this last night. They knew Vandy’s guards like driving right, but they gave up too many easy drives on the left.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Still, Maxey gets some help on the contest with a missed dunk & comes back on the other end to hit a difficult floater off the wrong foot. pic.twitter.com/OFA5y0ZhM2
This wasn’t a great shot or great defense from Maxey by giving a free lane to the cup with the left hand while trying to eliminate the right, but Kentucky got a break with the missed dunk and on the other end, the freshman gets one hell of a bounce off the toughest shot he took all night coming off the wrong foot.
That’s where the benefit of him shooting a ‘soft ball’ comes into play. Maxey has great touch with his shots and sometimes, luck comes into play.
Maxey did a good job making this drive tough for Lee + one of Sestina’s two big blocks at the rim, but watch the bottom of the screen. Maxey flies outta there to leak out for an easy jam off another good Hagans dish. He’s so quick. ♂️ pic.twitter.com/qgxoRGfPMP— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Once Kentucky got their feet under themselves in the second half, it was lights out. They did what they had to do and turned their defense into offense. Maxey actually makes this drive tougher by getting his hand on the ball and then after Nate Sestina blocked the first of two shots at the rim in this stretch of the game, Maxey used that top-flight speed to race out in front of the field off a good Hagans dish for an easy slam.
Loved this pass from Maxey out of his baseline drive + Sestina’s extra pass to Quickley to make it a two-point game. Hagans’ penetration set the whole thing up. pic.twitter.com/m5yR2celPy— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Quickley has developed into Kentucky’s big-shot maker in this recent span of games, but it was the development of the possession here that got him a great look to trim what was a 14-point Vandy lead all the way down to just two. Hagans penetrates the defense through the middle of the floor and when Maxey looks to drive down the baseline, he makes the right read to Sestina, who also makes the right play in swinging one more pass to Quickley for 3.
Here’s the thing: Sestina was wide open in the corner for 3, but Maxey attacked this poor closeout attempt so well that it didn’t even matter. Good ball movement out of the post double and an easy layup for Maxey. pic.twitter.com/83kGXnIOcv— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Like I noted with this clip, Sestina was open in the right corner and was at the ready to shoot. But, once the ball swung back to Maxey at the free-throw line extended, he punished an awful closeout attempt and got to the rim with ease. Three points are worth more than two, but you take the two when it’s that easy to get.
I thought Maxey might have been able to feed Sestina off the brick here, but this is what makes him so dangerous. When he’s in open space, his speed takes over. You can’t really do much but foul. pic.twitter.com/rhyDuW7rCT— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Maxey’s speed is a point of emphasis on his scouting report and when he’s in the open floor, look out. It would’ve been a tough pass to Sestina up ahead of the play here, but Maxey flashes right through the Vandy defense tracking back and draws the foul at the basket. Speed kills.
Maxey can be so, so good off the dribble. Pippen Jr. had no chance to stay in front of him when he gets that low and attacks the paint with quickness. pic.twitter.com/60LG5MPPkA— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 12, 2020
Again, speed kills. Maxey slows a slight jab step right and Scotty Pippen Jr. had absolutely no chance to stay in front of Maxey when he gets into the lane.
At this point, Vandy had already thrown in the towel with their effort, but this is what Calipari was talking about in his post-game press conference. Maxey didn’t let his foot off the gas and continued to punish the Commodore defense inside of the final 90 seconds. He played to win, not just to play.
Kentucky got great contributions that didn’t appear in the final box score as brightly as Maxey’s line did, but without his offensive efforts, who knows where Big Blue would’ve been after such an awful start on both ends of the floor. Hagans, Quickley and Richards don’t have a chance to do what they did in the second half without Maxey keep Kentucky afloat.