Cats ‘let go of the rope’ late, but hang on to beat Commodores for SEC road win

Published 9:04 am Wednesday, January 12, 2022

It took three attempts but Kentucky got a breakthrough on the road Tuesday night with a 78-66 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.

The Wildcats (12-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) never trailed and held on despite going scoreless in the final six minutes of the contest after building a 28-point lead. Kentucky faltered in its previous two true road contests with late-game meltdowns at Notre Dame on Dec. 11 and again at LSU on Jan. 14, but survived a late scare this time around.

“We let go of the rope,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It’s something that we’ve got to get better at. When you get up as many as we got up on them, in this building (you’ve got to keep pressing) … we’re trying to win a game.”

Unlike the hostile environments in South Bend and Baton Rouge, Big Blue Nation found a way into Memorial Gymnasium, which gave the Wildcats a boost throughout the game.

“It was more like a home game,” Kentucky forward Keion Brooks said. “We have a lot of great fans that travel. They did a good job making noise for us (and) they traveled three and a half hours to support us.”

For the second straight game, Kentucky was without point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who has missed the past two games because of a neck strain he suffered in a 65-60 loss at LSU last week. Freshman TyTy Washington picked up the slack for Wheeler and finished with 15 points and dished out a team-high four assists.

Calipari liked the way Washington handled the pick-and-roll schemes on offense and said Washington was a “bear” at the point-guard spot, which gives the Wildcats another option on offense once Wheeler returns to the lineup.

“Some of the stuff that we’re doing with (TyTy) now, we can do with him as an off-guard,” Calipari said.

Under the direction of Washington and Davion Mintz at the point, the Wildcats finished with just nine turnovers and dished out 15 assists, led by Washington with 15.

“They’re veterans, a bunch of them and they’ve played,” Calipari said. “You can’t — every time you catch it, try to make a play. You’re better off with the ball moving and it’s an easier game for everybody … that’s the kind of stuff that we’re looking for and it takes time.”

Although Washington picked up where he left off following last Saturday’s 92-77 win over Georgia, Oscar Tshiebwe was too much for the Commodores to handle in the post. The Kentucky forward scored a career-high 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

Tshiebwe became the first player since Patrick Patterson in 2001 to score at least 30 points and grab 10 rebounds in a game. Patterson scored 33 points and had 11 rebounds in a win over Tennessee State on Dec. 22, 2008.

“It just happened,” he said. “My team, they helped me and looked for me down there (in the post). It feels good to finish with 30 points. I have ability down in the post to finish and that’s what helps me.”

“How about the way the team is finding him and passing him the ball?” Calipari added. “They are throwing it and the biggest thing is a couple of games ago, he didn’t catch them. … now he’s shooting jumpers and making free throws. I’m really happy to see how he has played.”

Calipari also was pleased with his team’s defense, especially in the first half.

“I thought we defended our butts off early in the game,” the Kentucky coach said. “That’s what we want. … We’re thinking (of scoring) 75-80 points a game and then our defense will do the rest. You can’t score 60, you can’t, or we can’t (and win).”

Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, 1 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytodaycom and via twitter at keithtaylor21.