By LARRY VAUGHT
If Kentucky plays like it did the first half against Vanderbilt it could easily lose in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
If the Cats play like they did in the second half at Vanderbilt they could easily be playing in the Final Four.
In this topsy-turvy college basketball season, Kentucky went from being down 36-27 at halftime to outscoring Vanderbilt 51-28 in the second half, including a devastating 15-2 run, to win 78-64 over the Commodores.
“There was nothing soft about Kentucky the second half about how they played offense,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “They attacked the rim, played downhill and were the aggressor.
“This half it was body blow after body blow. Kentucky started to win the physical battles it lost all of the first half.”
Credit a lot of that to sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans. He had not been playing well in recent games. To his credit, he admitted as much and he didn’t let two first-half fouls in less than 10 seconds deter his superb play the second half. He finished the game with 11 points, 10 defensive rebounds, eight assists and two steals. More importantly, he had one assist in 32 minutes and it came in the game’s first two minutes when Immanuel Quickley stopping going forward just as Hagans released the pass to him.
Hagans said after the game he didn’t know he was close to a triple-double, something only three UK players have ever done.
“I would have passed it if I did (know),” Hagans said.
He wasn’t the only Cat who played well.
— Freshman Tyrese Maxey was 10 for 17 from the field and had 25 points — his third 25 point game of the season — to go with four rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 38 minutes to offset two turnovers.
— Junior Nick Richards took over to start the second half when UK needed an offensive list and finished with 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks before fouling out late.
— Immanuel Quickley seemed to be on the floor way too often after trying to drive to the basket but went 7-for-7 at the foul line and made three of four 3’s, including two daggers late in the game. He finished with 18 points, five rebounds and one steal.
— EJ Montgomery’s were more than adequate with six points, including 4-for-4 at the foul line, to go with nine rebounds (four offensive) and three blocks in 29 minutes. Even better, he got on the floor at least three times after loose balls and was much more alert and energetic than he has been in some games.
Vanderbilt coach Jerry Steakhouse said Kentucky’s length and speed often caused teams to back off on defense. Instead, he had the Commodores pressure the Cats rather than back off and it led to UK missing 19 of 28 shots in the first half. The Cats went one-on-one way too much and had just two first-half assists.
Vanderbilt had almost as many 3-pointers at half as UK had field goals as the Commodores were 8-for-17 to lead 36-27 at half — UK’s biggest halftime deficit of the season — despite missing their last five shots and not scoring the final 3 minutes, 51 seconds. Of course, UK had just three free throws itself in the final 3:12.
But the second half found the re-energized Wildcats, who had 12 blocked shots. The win pushed UK to 9-2 in SEC play and kept the Cats tied for the conference lead and positioned to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding the next three weeks.
“If you know college basketball, you know Kentucky is one of the top 16 teams (in the nation),” Dykes said.
He’s right if UK plays the way it did the second half and maybe not only top 16, but perhaps top four.