Oscar Tshiebwe said it this way - “Anything with our fans, we can do. We’re going out there - it is not going to be easy - we have to go fight and have fun...” In a brief conversation that I had with Oscar in Tampa, he added - “I’m ready. We’ll bring our best.”
After the surprising surge by Vanderbilt to beat Alabama, the Wildcats found themselves facing off against the Commodores on Friday night in the SEC Tournament. Going into the game the Kentucky squad was well aware of how dangerous their opponents would be. Led by Scotty Pippen Jr., their potential to be spoilers was very much on the mind of head coach John Calipari.
Adding even greater importance to the SEC Tournament was the stunning win Texas A&M grabbed over top seeded Auburn. Their victory, which avenged their 17 point loss from earlier in the season, ramped up the importance of the Cats tournament play because now they alone controlled their destiny for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn’s loss knocked them out of that slot, and it was now the Cats for the taking.
This was not just any tournament game. As Cal is always quick to remind folks, it is about playing for the seeding. Vanderbilt gave no indication that they would make it easy.
“It’s going to be a hard game for us,” Calipari said. “They’re dangerous, playing as well as anybody in our league right now.”
That wariness equated to a team being ready for whatever Vandy would throw at them in their matchup.
The Commodores threw their best and the Cats did not break. When the final buzzer sounded it was Kentucky 77-71 to advance to the semifinals against Tennessee. Vandy did their best and forced Kentucky to the wall but with a strong finish in the first half and the second, the Cats put all the distance they needed between them and an upset.
Davion Mintz and TyTy Washington put the serious clamps on the SEC’s leading scorer, Pippin who spent most of the game flustered and frazzled. His 10 points were a non factor but the defensive effort by the Kentucky guards may be the most valuable effort of the night.
TyTy Washington has gotten healthy just in time for the post season and had ice water in his veins and finished off the Commodores with a cool 25 points, the most since his string of injuries going all the way back to mid-January.
The SEC Player of the Year, Oscar Tshiebwe tied the single season record for double doubles, placing him alongside Kentucky legend Dan Issel. Oscar’s 5 blocks were a personal career high. The game lived up to the hype and the postseason is now officially here.
The Cats continue their quest for an SEC title in the semifinal tomorrow but more importantly, they are chasing a number one seed in the Big Dance.