19 points. With a little over 8 minutes left in the first half, the Vanderbilt Commodores (16-14, 9-8 in the SEC) led the Kentucky Wildcats (25-5, 15-2) by 19 points, 25-6. In right at 12 minutes of playing basketball, one of the most efficient offenses in the country had only scored 6 points. However, when all was said and done on Tuesday night, the Wildcats had come back to defeat the Commodores 73-67. The comeback was, in part, led by the tough play of seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis (3 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks).
Senior Night is always a special time in the Commonwealth and the matchup with Vanderbilt wasn’t any different. There was the usual pomp and circumstance to celebrate the Wildcat seniors, Hawkins, Willis and Mychal Mulder. Willis even celebrated by proposing to his longtime girlfriend (she said yes). After the always emotional singing of My Old Kentucky Home, the Wildcats came out flat as Vanderbilt began to build its sizable lead on the back of strong outside shooting. The Commodores jumped out to a 7-0 lead on the way to the 19 point cushion.
Post game, Wildcat head coach John Calipari, lamented his teams slow start, but commended their fight when faced with real adversity. And fight back they did. With the game and potential SEC title in the balance, the Cats fought back to get the game to six at the half, 30-24. Cal said the plan was to use a full court press to speed Vanderbilt up and to force turnovers and that’s exactly what happened.
In the second half, the Wildcats dominated the fatigued Commodores, outscoring them in the paint (18-8), in fast break points (6-0), in second chance points (4-0) and in points off turnovers (17-0). Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said after the game that fatigue wasn’t an issue, but it was clear that the crisp passing and deadeye shooting that put the Cats in the hole dissipated the longer Vandy had to compete against the Wildcat pressure.
Malik Monk shook off his own personal slow start to finish with a team high 27 points, including 9-10 from the FT line. Bam Adebayo scored 16 points and grabbed 6 rebounds and shot 8-10 from the FT line himself. Isaiah Briscoe, maligned by some of the Big Blue Nation, finished with 7 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and zero turnovers in the kind of all around game the sophomore needs to have as the Cats enter March.
The win guarantees Kentucky of at least a share of the SEC regular season championship. With a victory down in College Station against Texas A&M, the Cats will win the title outright. As Calipari pointed out after the game, this team has a lot of fight. These Cats have had to ground out a lot of games and they’ve won a lot of ugly games this season. The win over Vanderbilt was the largest deficit overcome by a Calipari coached Kentucky team and was the largest deficit overcome for Kentucky since being down 19 points against Florida in 1994.