By Lizzie Hull
TAMPA — Oscar Tshiebwe scored only a dozen points but the third-seeded Kentucky Wildcats still managed a 77-71 victory over number 11 Vanderbilt in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament in Tampa.
Tshiebwe’s 12 points and 14 rebounds added up to his 26th double-double, tying the school record set by Dan Issel in the 1969-70 season.
Without a big scoring game from Tshiebwe, the Wildcats had to rely on other players to score and they got it from TyTy Washington, Jr.
“It’s just him getting back into rhythm,” said Sahvir Wheeler. “But also going back to the depth of our team and that it can be anyone’s night. At any given time someone can step up and someone can make plays.”
Despite shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half compared to Vandy’s 38 percent, the Wildcats found themselves leading by just 37-33 going into the break.
“I kept asking, ‘Why aren’t we up more?’” said Coach John Calipari. “We’re shooting 50 percent, they’re shooting 38 percent — why aren’t we up more?”
And before long, they were down, The Wildcats found themselves trailing by seven after the Commodores opened the second half on a 13-0 scoring run.
Kentucky responded with a 16-1 run of its own, sparked by a 3-pointer from Kellan Grady and a technical foul on Vandy coach Jerry Stackhouse, growing their lead back to eight at 55-47 midway through the second half.
After another Commodore run closed the UK lead to 59-58, Washington knocked down back-to-back threes to put the Wildcats up nine points with just four and a half minutes remaining.
Washington finished with 25 points, hitting 8-of-17 from the field, with a career best of four 3-pointers to lead all Kentucky scorers. Washington’s 17 points in the second half were decisive; he was the only Wildcat to post double-digit scoring after halftime.
“His ability to make shots and make free throws and make floaters,” Calipari said of Washington’s play. “He’s skilled.”
Though the Wildcats came away with the win, it was no easy feat with a healthy Vanderbilt squad carrying over the energy from its tournament wins over Georgia and Alabama.
Scottie Pippen, Jr., who averaged 32.5 in his two regular season matchups with Kentucky, scored just 10 points Friday night, the Wildcats holding him to use 2-of-17 shooting.
But just as the Cats found support for Tshiebwe when they needed it, so did the Commodores who got a huge game from Jordan Wright.
The Vandy swingman finished with 27 points, 21 of them in the second half. He connected on 5-of-6 from beyond the arc. Wright’s shooting kept the Commodores in the game through the final minutes, but it would not be enough.
“Vandy has played so well down the stretch,” Calipari said. “What they did against a good Alabama team, I knew what this would be, I knew it would be hard.”
Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin both played big minutes for the Wildcats Friday night, finishing with 10 points apiece as they joined Tshiebwe and Washington in double figures.
The Wildcats (26-6) survive and advance to the semifinals, where they’ll take on Tennessee at around 3 p.m. Saturday.