By LARRY VAUGHT
It was impossible to believe that Kentucky players were not going to be looking ahead to Saturday’s game at Auburn and ESPN College GameDay. No matter how much UK coach John Calipari warned the players against doing that and no matter how much the players said they would not let it happen, you knew it would.
Vanderbilt came into Wednesday night’s game in Rupp Arena on a 24-game Southeastern Conference losing streak. The Commodores had not won a SEC game in 697 days but with about 17 minutes to play, the Commodores led Kentucky 40-30.
It was like UK was not only looking ahead to Auburn but playing like the Tigers — who trailed Mississippi by 17 points at halftime Tuesday when they scored just 20 points in the first 20 minutes.
Auburn came back to win in double overtime. Kentucky didn’t need an overtime but also came back to win 71-62 because Nick Richards and Tyrese Maxey dominated the end of the game. They scored UK’s last 18 points — both had nine points — and helped the Cats avert a loss the would have been disastrous for NCAA Tournament seedings.
It was a case of good and bad for UK’s Big Four.
— Ashton Hagans had12 points (4 for 6 from field, 4 for 5 at line), six assists, four rebounds and two steals in 33 minutes — but also had five turnovers.
— Maxey had 17 points on 5 for 10 shooting from field (2 for 3 from 3) and 5 for 6 at line, four rebounds, two assists and one steal — but had three turnovers.
— Richards had 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting and 11 rebounds — but only played 22 minutes because he got two fouls in less than four minutes to start game and had no points and one rebound at halftime when he played just five minutes.
— Immanuel Quickley had 11 points (5 for 5 at the line), four rebounds, two assists and no turnovers — but was only 3-for-13 from the field.
Yet Kentucky overcame the shortcomings by regrouping at the right time and having players make big plays at the right time.
Maxey was sharply criticized by Calipari after his play at Texas Tech in Saturday’s overtime win. He responded by hitting a 3-pointer to open Wednesday’s game. Calipari said Maxey had responded well in practice the last two days but has “not touched” where he will be in another month.
Maxey said on the SEC Network after the game that Calipari was relatively calm at halftime with UK down seven points and told the team it was not playing hard enough— something every UK fan knew.
Calipari had a little different version of what he told the team.
“It’s your team. You want to lose? Go ahead,” Calipari said he told the players.
Maxey said assistant coaches Kenny Payne and Tony Barbee were a lot more vocal.
“Coach Barbee and coach Payne were pretty animated (at halftime). They were the ones who fired us up. Coach Cal just said we had two good days of practice and deserved to win,” Maxey said.
Maybe UK will look back on this win as another learning lesson. Remember the Cats already have three perplexing losses — Evansville at home, Utah in Las Vegas and South Carolina on the road. Against Evansville and South Carolina, UK couldn’t make plays in close games at the end to win. Against Utah, UK fell behind by double digits and tried to rally too late.
Now it’s on to Auburn and if this team continues the trend it has all season, then UK will come out with a lot more intensity and urgency in what is perceived as a big game the Cats maybe can’t win by many than it did in this game where almost everybody thought there was no way UK could lose.