LEXINGTON, Ky. — Maybe no corner was turned at West Virginia on Saturday. As John Calipari said, an inspiring victory cannot be counted upon to create momentum for what’s essentially a freshman team.
Two straight inspiring victories might do it.
Kentucky rallied again, this time from a 14-point second-half deficit to defeat Vanderbilt, 83-81, in overtime Tuesday night on Quade Green’s coast-to-coast layup with 4.3 seconds left.
Kentucky remained Kentucky: a collection of talented freshmen who have not yet outgrown the inconsistencies of youth.
But who could question the Cats’ gritty determination after this game?
Calipari credited “desperation” as the fuel to Kentucky’s come-from-behind victory at West Virginia.
It re-appeared against Vandy as UK trailed for 30 minutes, by as much as 14 in the second half and by seven at the final television timeout (3:48 to go in the second half).
Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored a career-high 30 points, Kentucky rallied. His fourth driving layup inside the final eight minutes got Kentucky within 66-65.
Riley LaChance answered in a surprising way. A 3-point shooter, he drove to a layup that made it 68-65.
Vandy cashed in a UK turnover with a fast-break layup to take a 70-65 lead with 38.7 seconds left.
Two Gilgeous-Alexander free throws made it 70-67. Then Riley LaChance, who missed three straight free throws with 30 seconds against UK earlier this month, misfired again. He missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19.9 seconds left.
That opened the door, and Green walked through for an unmolested layup to make it 70-69 with 8.7 seconds left.
Jeff Roberson, an 86.1-percent free-throw shooter, made one of two with 5.8 seconds left. It was his only miss in 10 free throws.
Kentucky got a break on the miss. The resulting scramble for the loose ball led to Joe Toye fouling Gilgeous-Alexander with two seconds left. He made both free throws to send the game into overtime.
Kentucky led by four early in overtime, but Vandy showed its resiliency. The Commodores tied it at 81-81 with 11 seconds left.
Green answered with a driving layup made easy when no Vandy player rotated to challenge the shot. The layup won it for UK with 4.3 seconds left.
Kentucky improved to 17-5 overall and 6-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Vanderbilt, which has the poorest Ratings Percentage Index of any SEC team (No. 122), fell to 8-14 overall and 2-7 in the SEC.
The loss was Vandy’s ninth by a single-digit margin this season. “Being close is not good enough,” Jeff Roberson said before the game. “Everyone is sick of it.”
To accentuate the positive, the first half surely cured the Cats of any arrogance resulting from the victory at West Virginia. Calipari had expressed concern about arrogance.
Vanderbilt led 33-27 at halftime. UK did not shoot well (10 of 27, one of five on 3-pointers).
Maybe more importantly, Vandy controlled the tempo and the game. Rather than the Press Virginia that opened up the floor for UK’s athletes, Vandy made it largely a half-court game in the first half as evidenced by neither team having a fast-break point.
UK tried to create tempo by pressing early. But it had little effect.
Kentucky led 7-2 early. But the missed shots prevented an early knockout.
Instead, Vanderbilt hung in there despite its main scorers, Roberson and LaChance, combining for three points in the first 13-plus minutes.
LaChance and Roberson scored 24 and 20 points against TCU. LaChance nine baskets in each of last two games, equaling career highs. Roberson tied career high with eight in each game.
“At Mississippi State, Jeff and Riley didn’t shoot it nearly as well as they’re capable,” Coach Bryce Drew said of a Jan. 16 defeat. The pair were a combined seven of 14, but one of seven from 3-point range. “Since then, they’ve played really, really well,” Drew said. “Fantastic the last three games, and our team has played on a whole different level. … They’re going to have to play well for us to be in this game.”
Roberson got going late in the first half. He scored nine of his 12 first-half points in the final 6:03. With LaChance contributing a couple of 3-pointers, Vandy used a 10-0 run to take the lead.
Kentucky had only one basket in the final 5:39 of the first half.
The spark Jarred Vanderbilt might provide didn’t happen. He played three ineffective minutes, scoring two points and committing two fouls.
As at West Virginia, the second half did not bring immediate relief for Kentucky. UK made only two of its first seven shots.
Worse, Vandy outhustled the Cats. Five straight points by freshman Ejike Obinna gave the game its first double-digit lead with Vandy ahead 42-31.
On the plus side for Kentucky, LaChance picked up his third and fourth fouls before the first TV timeout. He went to the bench with four fouls at the 16:25 mark.
At its nadir, Kentucky’s deficit stood at 45-31 with 15:24 left. Rupp Arena was lifeless.
Led by Gilgeous-Alexander and Green, UK rallied. The Cats’ first counter reduced the deficit to 47-44.
But Vandy restored a double-digit lead going into the final eight-plus minutes.