Clutch Play Giving Cats Something to Aim for
All signs pointed to a victory for Vanderbilt.
To say the Commodores outplayed Kentucky would be an “understatement,” according to Kenny Payne.
Instead, Tuesday night ended with a Wildcat dogpile at midcourt.
“My hat goes off to them because they played so hard and you could say they deserved to win, but welcome to Kentucky,” Payne said.
With everything going wrong and UK down big, the Cats appeared destined to come crashing back to earth following a huge win over West Virginia on Saturday. Somehow – mixing a little Rupp Arena mojo, some clutch play and a game winner by Quade Green – No. 21/22 Kentucky (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) escaped with an 83-81 overtime victory over Vandy (8-14, 2-7 SEC).
“Vanderbilt really outplayed us tonight, but we had a couple guys and their will to win was unbelievable,” Payne said.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was the deserving headliner – he did score a career-high 30 points after all – but he was hardly alone in coming up with big plays. There’s no other way to overcome a 14-point deficit with 15:23 left, erase a five-point margin in the final 40 seconds of regulation or survive a thrilling five-minute overtime period.
Kevin Knox, as one would expect in the wake of his 34-point explosion over the weekend, was key in overtime, but his evening didn’t go according to plan. He was quiet in regulation, making just 4-of-13 shots, but he hit both of his field goals in overtime to finish with 18 points to go along with a team-high eight rebounds.
“The way Kevin finished this game, opposed to the way he started it?” Payne said. “Big. Big for him. Because that was pressure on him, as an example, a kid comes off a game where he has 34 points, he’s second guessing, am I expected to do this every night? Well, as you see, the answer is yes and sometimes it doesn’t go that way.”
Though it didn’t, Knox refused to stop playing. In a broader sense, the same can be said of the player who was at the bottom of that dogpile.
Green began the season as UK’s starting point guard, but the emergence of Gilgeous-Alexander and his own back injury have forced him to come off the bench. The freshman had been quiet in three games since his return, but there was nothing quiet about the play he made to win the game.
“I’m shooting that shot, always,” said Green, who scored 12 points. “I always had that mindset.”
Unafraid to make the big play, Green watched as Vanderbilt face-guarded Gilgeous-Alexander to keep the ball out of his hands. When it came to Green instead, he found his way into the frontcourt and saw a lane to the basket. He took it and calmly hit a layup in the final seconds, a shot that would become the game winner when a 3-pointer by Vandy’s Payton Willis came up short as time expired.
“Quade’s just a natural scorer,” Knox said. “That just comes to him. He can put the ball in the basket. That’s what he’s done his whole life, so we know when he gets in the game he can shoot balls, he can create his own shot, get his basket. I know he’s going to keep fighting. I know he lost his job, I know he hasn’t really been playing well, but I know his mentality. He’s very vocal. He’s just going to keep playing and tonight he had a really good game. He hit some big shots for us and then the last-second shot. That’s just him, just his natural Quade. Just go get a basket.”
Green, Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox combined to score UK’s final seven baskets over the last eight minutes, with all three showing no fear when it comes to taking a make-or-break shot. That’s an important development for a young team that doesn’t figure to stop playing close games.
“That’s what (John Calipari) tells us all the time: There’s always going to be somebody else that steps up big in the end,” Knox said. “Last game it was my game. Tonight it was Shai. That’s what kind of makes us dangerous, because we got so many weapons that can really score the basketball and really can put the ball in the basket. Defensively, you don’t know what guy is going to have a good night. Tonight it was Shai and last game it was mine.”
UK might notch a blowout win or two if the Cats could find a way to deliver more consistent effort from the outset. For now, they will have to settle for the positives that come from the fact that they have rallied from double-digit deficits to win each of their last two games.
“I think that the fact that we’re winning these games is important,” Payne said. “So that shows there’s a will to win, but, my goodness, I wish it was a little easier. I would like for us as a team – and I’m sure Cal’s the same – to play those last five or six minutes, play the game like that and let’s see how good we are.”
The Cats have an idea what that would look like. They have to get there to show it to everyone.
“Once we come to March and once we can get playing 40 minutes just hard and fighting and defensively and everyone playing the way we should play, we’re going to be hard to stop,” Knox said. “We just gotta be able to get everybody on page.”