LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — It’s a trend Kentucky coach John Calipari would like to see come to an end sooner rather than later.
For the second straight game, the Wildcats fell behind early and rallied to beat a Southeastern Conference opponent. Kentucky (12-3, 2-1) overcame a 16-4 deficit and outscored Vanderbilt 28-17 in the second half to defeat the Commodores 56-47 Saturday night.
Similar to its last outing, Kentucky fell behind 12-2 to Texas A&M and then roared back to post an 85-74 win over the Aggies earlier this week. It was a similar result against the Commodores who bolted to a 13-4 lead. Calipari breathed a sigh of relief after his team handed Vanderbilt its third consecutive setback to open conference play.
“We’ve got to figure out how to start games. It’s getting ridiculous,” he said. “It’s five halves in a row where we’re starting the game and we’re getting smashed.”
Texas A&M and Vanderbilt lacked the punch necessary to deliver a decisive blow, but Kentucky’s opponents are showing they have nothing to lose and are using the Super Bowl approach - making it their biggest game of the year - when they visit Rupp Arena.
Vanderbilt, which hasn’t won since New Year’s Eve, was determined to make a solid showing despite the recent struggles. Vandy was successful for at least one half. Although a loss, coach Bryce Drew was pleased with his team’s performance.
“To the outside world, going 0-3 in the conference, the coach is miserable,” Drew said. “But on the inside, we probably had five of the best days that we’ve had all year with our guys as far as togetherness and transparency and taking steps forward. We’re the 305th youngest team in the country and so we are going to take some steps back before we take steps forward. These last five days we have made a lot of progress.”
To give his team a chance, Drew exclusively went zone, which created issues for the Wildcats. Calipari wasn’t surprised the Commodores used the defensive scheme to keep his squad off-balanced. It’s the approach Vandy took in a 69-58 loss to Kansas State last month.
“I thought they were going to play zone. I saw their Kansas State game, and they played zone against Kansas State and gave them everything they could handle,” he said. “And I told them, and we worked on the zone for two days. Obviously, we didn't work very good but we did work on it because I kind of thought that's what they do.”
The scheme made things difficult for the Wildcats.
“They played zone for 40 minutes and it's really difficult,” Calipari said. “When you have young guys that are still learning the feel, when to look to the post, when to ... we were thrown around the perimeter and I was trying everything to just get something to work.”
Calipari wants the Wildcats to become more determined from the opening tipoff and not have to depend on rallies to defeat opponents in the future.
“We have to be more desperate to start games,” he said. “We have to be more desperate for 40 minutes. We have to understand that every team that plays us is excited and at the beginning of the game, they are coming ... if you can understand the beginning of the games, they're playing Kentucky. They are in Rupp Arena. They are going to do things. They are going to play sharp. But as the game goes on, if you will stay desperate, you will have your chances.”
On a day when Alabama, Florida, Mississippi State, and Arkansas lost at home, Kentucky bucked the trend, albeit the hard way.
“We didn't lose at home,” Calipari said. “It looked ugly early, but now we move on to Georgia.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Georgia, 7 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.