By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Kentucky survived what could easily have been a trap game against Vermont here with a showdown looming with Kansas Tuesday night in Chicago.
After trailing most of the first half Friday against Utah Valley, Kentucky took the early Sunday. Vermont managed to stay in the game but there was none of that double-digit lead for the visitors like Utah Valley had.
However, Kentucky won only 73-69 because the Cats did not have a field goal the final 3 minutes, 13 seconds and missed seven of their last eight shots. That’s not exactly the way to finish a game to get ready for a team like Kansas.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he was trying “all kind of different things” at the end to see who could make shots and free throws.
Don’t forget that Vermont won 29 games, including 21 in a row, last year and lost by only 10 points to a solid Purdue team in last year’s NCAA Tournament. This was no gimme win, especially with Kansas looming.
“We are just disappointed we could not make one more shot. I have a pretty experienced group. There is a feeling of frustration that we are not quite there yet,” Vermont coach John Becker said.
Kentucky freshman P.J. Washington had 17 points, 10 rebounds and two assists while Hamidou Diallo had 16 points and three assists. Kevin Knox added 11 points and eight rebounds and Quade Green had 15 points, four rebounds and four assists.
“Quade played well today. P.J. was a beast today finally,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
The losers got 16 points and five assists from point guard Trae Bell-Haynes and 15 points and seven rebounds from Kevin Lamb . The Catamounts went 10-for-29 from 3-point range and had just seven turnovers. Kentucky was 18-for-23 at the foul line, Vermont 7-for-13.
“You cannot play Popcorn State and learn things. But I didn’t realize how good this team was until I watched tape,” Calipari said. “I knew they would not give up. They won 29 games last year. They had Purdue beat. That team … they are going to win a lot of games. We are learning and learned against an execution team that can really shoot.”
The Catamounts cut the lead to 65-61 and trailed just 69-66 with 3:59 to go when UK hit a four-minute scoring drought — which has been a problem early this season — and missed four straight shots. But Knox buried a clutch 3 from the corner for UK before Vermont countered with 1:32 left to keep it 72-69.
“Kevin making that 3 showed me something,” Calipari said.
The Big Blue faithful — and coach John Calipari — got a little more tense when a UK turnover gave Vermont the ball with 1:23 to go and a chance to tie the game. The Catamounts missed the 3, Knox got the rebound but Diallo was way off with a 3-point shot with 42 seconds left. Bell-Haynes got fouled going to the rim but missed them both. However, Vermont got the offensive rebound and called timeout with 17.8 seconds left.
The Catamounts got two shots to tie the game — but missed them both. Wenyen Gabriel contested the last 3 to enable UK to escape.
“I thought we got good looks at the end (Wenyen) Gabriel made a heck of a play to get a piece of the ball (on Vermont’s last shot),” Becker said.
“The last play Gabriel was able to jump back into the play even though we thought we had an open look. Their length is something,” Bell-Haynes said. “They’re really good. They can kind of hide their deficiencies because of how long they are. We have a lot of sets and lot of players that can attack. We were able to find holes and pick them apart.”
Calipari said Kansas will be a “tough” matchup for his team.
“Where are we now. I have not looked at anything for Kansas yet,” Calipari said. “It’s against the rules for me to show them (players) any tape tonight. But that’s okay. We know it will be a tough game. Kansas has a bunch of big guys.
“This game (against Vermont) was in doubt as soon as I watched the tape. In the second half, you knew they would not quit. That’s a fun way to coach. I’ve had teams that way where I know we are fine. Not this one.”