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Tyrese Maxey’s ‘Big Game Maxey’ persona showed up when Kentucky truly needed it

The freshman star has had the tendency to go a bit quiet in games against lesser competition, but that certainly wasn’t the case on Tuesday night in Kentucky’s sweep over Vanderbilt.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Tyrese Maxey scored 25+ points for the third time in a Kentucky uniform on Tuesday night during the Cats’ 78-64 come-from-behind victory over Vanderbilt.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.