For a while there it looked as though Tuesday night’s edition of Memorial Magic was going to be a command performance by the Vanderbilt Commodores, who made Kentucky’s starting guards disappear in the first few minutes of Cats vs. ‘Dores.
Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox each picked up two early fouls and headed for the bench. John Calipari, who was finally allowed to walk the sidelines instead of screaming from under the basket, spent a few extra steps pacing up and down, looking for a combination that would slow the home team, which spotted Kentucky a 9-0 lead in the opening minutes, only to eventually take the lead.
The freshmen may have been missing in action, and missing THE action, but that’s when Isaiah Briscoe went to work. The sophomore guard answered Vandy’s three-pointers with slashing moves and helped the Wildcats scratch out an 87-81 victory. Briscoe turned in one of his best all-around performances in a Kentucky uniform with 23 points, seven rebounds, five assists and only one turnover in 39 grueling minutes.
Vandy is not a contender for the Southeastern Conference c
hampionship. It might be in the coming years under new head coach Bryce Drew. It is not now and yet, the ‘Dores repeatedly found open slots beyond the arc and open paths to the basket. They exposed holes in the UK defense and they aren’t the first team to do it.
There is much learning to be done by this Kentucky team which, per normal, leans heavily on freshmen but also can fall back on veterans. Right now, Briscoe is the only one performing consistently.
Calipari isn’t getting much from Derek Willis; Isaac Humphries is showing signs of becoming the big man both he and his coach predicted he would be this season, grabbing seven rebounds in eight minutes, four on the offensive glass.
Add his numbers to the 14 points and seven boards produced by Bam Adebayo and it’s easy to see why the Cats overpowered the ‘Dores in the paint, 46-32. But it also was an example of Kentucky’s depth coming through.
“We need more guys playing better if we’re going to be one of ‘those’ teams,” John Calipari said on his post-game radio show. “You cannot do that playing five or six guys. You have to play eight, maybe even nine.”
The Cats excel when they play at full speed, getting off shots in 15 seconds or fewer. And they’re especially special if they’re draining shots from beyond the arc. That didn’t happen Tuesday night.
“We were 1-of-9 from the three,” Calipari said. “There are teams in this country, if they aren’t making threes, they can’t win. I told these guys, you don’t have to make threes to win.” But what he does want to see, the coach said, was players being creative, scrambling and finding their way to the rim. They did just enough of that in Nashville.
They survived, beating one of the middle-of-the-pack teams in the SEC. Tougher games lay ahead, including a trip to Gainesville and a non-conference matchup with Kansas. Tuesday’s victory showed what might happen if Fox and Monk get in early foul trouble. They have to find another way, which they did, at the urging of their coach.
“He just said ‘Keep fighting,’ ” Adebayo said when Mike Pratt asked what Calipari was telling them in the huddle, late in the game. ” ‘You’re on the road. They’re going to make shots because you’re Kentucky.’ ”
The Wildcats responded with just enough. “We said, we’re brothers,” Adebayo said. “We stick together. We’re going to pull it out.”
They executed when they needed it most. Monk hit a key floater and a couple of free throws in the closing seconds and now, they’re 4-0 in the league with another mid-pack team, Auburn, coming to town Saturday. It’s back to work.
“If they’re not focused and ready and disciplined in practice,” said Calipari, “then I have to be that guy I don’t like being, the guy who grows fangs and goes crazy. I know you’re freshmen, but this is Kentucky. It doesn’t matter. We have to get this moving in the right way.”
Pulling one out in a place like Nashville, with you’re starting guards on the bench for long stretches, is a good way to do it.