LEXINGTON, Ky. – Never had Kentucky faced such a deep hole under coach John Calipari, a situation that took nearly everything the ninth-ranked Wildcats had to overcome Vanderbilt before holding on.
Their defensive urgency created offensive chances for Malik Monk to deliver once again.
Monk scored 20 points in the second half, including 10 in the final 3:40, as Kentucky rallied from a 13-point deficit and held off Vanderbilt 73-67 on Tuesday night to clinch a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season title.
After trailing by as many as 19 points in the first half, the Wildcats, who overcame the largest deficit under Calipari that ended in a win, were still down 47-34 with 13:51 remaining. They clamped down defensively and gave their shooters chances to contribute and earn a hard-fought victory. Monk thrived the most, making a go-ahead 3 with 3:40 left before adding another long-range shot with 49 seconds left for 69-62 lead.
The freshman guard then made four free throws in the final 21 seconds to finish with 27 points for Kentucky (25-5, 15-2), which shot 58 percent in the second half. Bam Adebayo added 16 points and De’Aaron Fox had 13 after a one-game absence with a knee injury. Each scored 10 points after the break.
While Calipari wished Kentucky had begun with that intensity, he welcomed the finish
“If you’re going to win in March, that’s what you have to play like for 40 minutes, what you saw in the second half,” he said after the Wildcats’ seventh straight victory.
Luke Kornet had 21 points and Joe Toye added 15 for Vanderbilt (16-14, 9-8), which made 11 3-pointers but had its four-game winning streak stopped.
Vanderbilt: The SEC’s best 3-point shooting team showed its strength often, making 6 of 16 in the first half including four straight during one stretch for a 25-9 lead. The Commodores finished 11 of 28 but went cold for several stretches in the second half and couldn’t stop Kentucky’s momentum once it got the lead. Foul trouble by Nolan Cressler — who fouled out late — Toye and Riley LaChance also hurt, though not as much as 10 second-half turnovers.
“I don’t think fatigue was an issue,” said Kornet, who went 7 of 13 from the field with three 3s. “I think we struggled executing and creating the same spacing as well as making that extra pass that we were in the first half. Defensively, we just struggled to get stops and that was the big difference.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats trailed 30-24 at halftime despite 31 percent shooting, including 2 of 10 from long range. They improved to make 15 of 26 to finish at 44 percent overall. They forced 18 turnovers and outrebounded the Commodores 33-28 on Senior Night for Derek Willis, who proposed to his girlfriend before the game, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder.
“We kept fighting and never quit, and that’s why we won the game,” said guard Isaiah Briscoe, who had seven points, seven rebounds and six assists.
Willis closed the home chapter of his Kentucky career by opening a new one romantically with girlfriend Keely Potts before the game. After being introduced pregame with fellow seniors, he dropped to one knee, opened a box with a ring and proposed to Potts as Calipari, teammates and a sellout crowd cheered.
“She was pretty nervous and at first she was like, `Are you serious?” Willis said, “and I said, `Well, yeah.’ When I put the ring on her finger her hands were shaking and I asked if she could keep them still for a second because I was nervous to put it on, too.”
Willis had eight rebounds and a big 3-pointer with 4:47 left for Kentucky’s first lead at 59-57.
It took everything Kentucky had to rally, and it might be enough to keep the Wildcats in the Top 10.
Vanderbilt: Hosts No. 12 Florida on Saturday in season finale, seeking a season sweep of the Gators. The Commodores won 68-66 on Jan. 21.
Kentucky: Visits Texas A&M on Saturday in regular season finale. The Wildcats won their previous meeting 100-58 on Jan. 3.