By Dr. John Huang
Kentucky rallies in second half for 78-64 win over Vanderbilt
Do you believe in magic? I’m talking about “Memorial Magic”—that mystical, paranormal, and supernatural aura that supposedly encompasses Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium. Built in 1952 as the campus memorial to Vanderbilt students and alumni killed in WWII, this basketball venue is as weird as it gets. I’ve seen enough of my share of banked in 3-pointers, last second buzzer beaters, miraculous comebacks, and coaching melt downs in Memorial to last me a lifetime.
Rumor has it that upon completion, the basketball gods were so impressed with the facility that they slipped some magic dust into the rafters. How else would you explain why Scott Draud, Barry Goheen, and Phil Cox always played out of their minds when Kentucky came to town? Or remember when Jamal Murray dropped 33 on the Black and Gold, and the Wildcats still got beat?
The magic was palpably strong at tipoff of this one. Against the Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 SEC), the Commodores (9-15, 1-10 SEC) jumped out to a 34-20 lead, hitting 8-of-15 three-pointers in the process. The Cats, meanwhile, were inexplicably lethargic, shooting 32% on their way to a 36-27 halftime deficit.
Kentucky chipped away at the lead in the second half, finally catching Vandy at 46-all at just under the 12-minute mark. From there, it was all Wildcats as the Big Four–Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, and Nick Richards–found their rhythm and their games.
Here are the five things that stood out.
1. The middle of February is about the time that you want your team to be getting its act together. Heading into the tournaments, it’s important to be on an uptick. With the win tonight, the Cats have now won 11 out of the last 13. It’s a bit disturbing, however, that they let an overmatched opponent do the one thing they couldn’t allow—shoot and make three-pointers. The fact that they were able to overcome that inexplicably lethargic start bodes well for a team with a will to win.
2. The Ashton Hagans turnover train finally came to a merciful halt. Kentucky fans always have to have something to worry about. Recently, it’s been Ashton Hagans’ propensity for turnovers that has generated much of the big blue stomach acid. Prior to tonight’s game, Hagans has had four or more turnovers in seven of his last eleven games. That’s not indicative of the overall quality of his play—certainly not characteristic of the discipline needed by supposedly the best point guard in America…and the heart and soul of this team. Today he only had only one miscue to go with 10 rebounds and 8 assists. I think it’s safe to say that how Ashton goes, Kentucky will go.
3. Tyrese Maxey remains the “wild card” for this team. He’s really the only one without a ceiling. The Cats needed someone tonight to carry them offensively. Maxey’s 25 points saved the day. “For the first time, he played with toughness,” Coach John Calipari said afterwards. Hopefully, it won’t be the last time.
4. The Vanderbilt crowd was a bit more muted than usual. In fact, there were plenty of seats to be had. I searched Ticketmaster a couple of hours before tipoff, and for a mere $57, you could be in the building. I’m not sure that’s ever been the case before. I know Vandy has struggled, and it’s a Tuesday night game, but still—it’s a bit of an indictment on the popularity of the game as a whole. Props to the Kentucky contingent—vocal and active throughout.
5. I don’t care how bad Vanderbilt is, if you’re a UK fan, wins in Memorial Gymnasium can never be taken for granted. Most importantly, it’s another road win for the Cats, something that may ultimately give them a much-needed bump come seeding time. Kentucky is now 5-2 in true road games, including impressive wins in difficult-to-win places like Fayetteville, Lubbock, and Knoxville.
You can now add Nashville to that list. “Memorial Magic” may be gone, but Kentucky showed just enough for a chance at a magical tournament run.