By LARRY VAUGHT
NASHVILLE — Sometimes there are losses that can help a team. Other times there can be a win that might actually hurt a team.
Kentucky may well have had one of those deflating wins here Thursday night when it blew a 16-point lead with a nine-minute scoring drought in the second half before rallying to beat Vanderbilt 60-58 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
Kentucky needed a gift score from Nerlens Noel after he clearly put up a shot after the 35-second shot clock expired and a last-second miss on a 3-pointer by Vanderbilt to escape after leading 47-31 with 13 minutes, 49 seconds to play. Kentucky coach John Calipari knew his team was lucky, but try to put on his happy face after the game.
“I am happy we won. I have been doing this 20-some years. When we win, I am happy. When we lose, I am devastated,” he said.
This time no one could blame him for feeling devastated by the victory. Remember it seemed like UK had turned the corner when it rallied in the second half before losing by three points at No. 4 Louisville and then dismantled Eastern Michigan last week. For 26 minutes, that improved play continued as UK rolled to a 47-31 lead.
However, Vanderbilt’s zone defense got a bit more aggressive, UK missed 12 straight shots and suddenly the Commodores went from not making shots to hitting shots. The Commodores went on an 18-0 run in a 7:40 span. When Vanderbilt pushed, UK didn’t push back. When the Commodores got rough, UK went soft.
“They just started playing tougher than we were,” UK point guard Ryan Harrow, who hit a 3-pointer to end Kentucky’s nine-minute stretch without a basket to give the Cats a 51-49 lead, said. “I think they started playing more physical than us. They got on a little run and kept playing physical and kept attacking one man (Kyle Wiltjer) and we were not rotating back.”
What happened to the offense that shot 57.7 percent (15-for-26) from the field in the first half and then couldn’t make a shot against the zone?
“I think a lot of the plays Nerlens (Noel) didn’t know which way to go and which play we were running because it was so loud and we could not all it out,” Harrow, who had four assists, said. “That was the biggest thing. We didn’t get it into the middle. This was our first SEC road game. Even though it was an ugly win, at least we came out with the win.”
True. Perhaps some inspiration should be taken from the last few minutes after Vanderbilt took the lead and Harrow hit a 3-pointer, Alex Poythress made two free throws, Noel scored twice and Kyle Wiltjer hit a short jumper to break a 54-54 tie.
However, it’s a lot easier to worry a lot more about what Calipari’s team is going to do the rest of the season. Remember, Vanderbilt is 6-7 and not the nearly the team it has been the last three years. Here are some big reasons for concern, especially with eight more SEC road games to go along with home games against ranked foes Florida and Missouri:
— Calipari blasted Wiltjer for his lack of defense. He said 14 of Vandy’s 24 first-half points came off Wiltjer and that he either has to figure out how to play better defense or quit playing because teams will keep attacking him.
— Poythress showed no signs of benefitting from his one-on-one work with Calipari the last few weeks. He had four turnovers — three came on charges — and just seven points and five rebounds. He managed two offensive boards but Calipari said he gave up five offensive boards to Vanderbilt.
“It’s very clear with Alex. There’s nothing else he can do. Either change or think you are okay. That kid outworked him. Ran the court harder. Went after loose balls harder,” Calipari said. “Can’t let that happen. Not acceptable for you. When he gets it and figures it out … please don’t alibi for him. He just got outworked.”
— Julius Mays went 1-for-5 from 3-point range and all were open looks. In the last six games, he’s 6-for-31 from long range. That makes it a lot easier for Vanderbilt’s zone to be effective since he’s supposed to be a shooter/scorer for UK.
—Vanderbilt outrebounded UK 42-37 and pulled off 20 offensive rebounds to nine for Kentucky. The Commodores did miss 47 shots (they were 23-for-70 from the field), but Vandy is not a big, physical team. “We get outrebounded by team that has gotten outrebounded all year,” Calipari said.
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein had eight rebounds, seven points, four assists, four blocks and two steals in 30 minutes. But he made no excuses for his team’s play and narrow win after have the game easily in hand.
“They just came out second half playing more smashmouth basketball. They outrebounded us. They came out straight up and pushed us under and we did not respond. We kind of let them push us under (the basket). We have to change that or every SEC game will be like that,” Cauley-Stein said. “We have been working almost the last two months and kind of reverted back and took a couple of steps back on the offensive glass. It’s nothing we cannot change.
“Coach said it was a learning game. The second half they outworked us. Again, that’s been a big emphasis the last month. Today, myself at times I let the kid (on Vanderbilt) play harder than me.”
Cauley-Stein said players have to “accept the fact you are not doing it and change it” for UK to improve.
That includes one more important thing — learning to listen better to Calipari.
“Coach has been saying all year that the SEC is not a joke. No matter who we play every night will be like this,” Cauley-Stein said. “We were up so much, as a freshman I was thinking, ‘This is not like what Coach has been saying,’ and then we were down and we had to dig down and pull this out.”
Kentucky did that, but whether winning at the end is enough to prepare UK’s wounded pysche after its near collapse remains to be seen starting with Saturday’s home game against Texas A&M.