Kentucky is getting used to life on the road.
The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) notched their second conference road victory in three tries Saturday with a 74-67 win over Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym. A week ago, the Wildcats dropped a 76-65 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville. No. 21 Kentucky concludes its string of four road encounters in the past five games Tuesday at South Carolina.
“I’m asking for the impossible,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’m playing a bunch of freshmen and I'm asking them to go on the road, in a hostile environment, blackout night, shirt night, and let's win the game. And it's going to be close, but you gotta tough it out. But that's what my job is: to ask for the impossible. Then when they leave, they look and say, 'I did more than I thought I could do.' But it's not fair for Kevin Knox, the youngest freshman in the country, to be put in that environment and those plays, and have to make plays and free throws. It's not fair to him. But, that's how we do this."
The two teams were tied at 59-59 with 3:48 remaining, but Kentucky used a 10-2 run to grab the lead for good. Knox sparked the run with five straight points, while Hamidou Diallo knocked down a 3-pointer and Wenyen Gabriel added a tip-in to complete the clinching run.
“I just got to the basket, knocked my free throws down and (John Calipari) been challenging me this whole season to be aggressive and get to the basket,” Knox said. “I’m starting to get it now."
Although a big factor for the Wildcats in the closing minutes, Knox wasn’t surprised by the close finish, especially on the road.
“We're getting into the middle of SEC play now, so every team is going to come at us with pretty much everything,” he said. “So we gotta be able to show that we're mature and be able to make winning plays down the stretch, get stops on defense and show people that we can actually win games in the SEC."
Shai-Gilgeous-Alexander said the single-digit win is a “testament” to the team’s “age.”
“It shows how young we are,” he said. “With that being said, we won both the last games with the bad ending. It also gives us room to improve and we'll watch film and we'll fix it for the next games."
The Wildcats were without starting point guard Quade Green, who has missed the past two games because of a back sprain. Tai Wynyard also missed the contest because of a back-related issue. Gilgeous-Alexander made his second straight start in Green’s absence and finished with a game-high 22 points and scored 10 of those in the first half.
Knox followed Gilgeous-Alexander with 17 points and PJ Washington and Diallo chipped in with 10 points apiece. Gilgeous-Alexander made seven field goals, seven free throws, grabbed four rebounds and dished out six assists. Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo, and Washington each played 38 minutes or more for the short-handed Wildcats, who are down to seven scholarship players.
“They got tired,” Calipari said. “PJ (Washington) didn't play well. I mean, he got tired. Hami (Diallo) and Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), when they get tired, their decision-making is not the same. But I played two guards 39 minutes a game when I was there at UMass that year. It was the best team I coached – I didn't say the most talented, even though Marcus Camby may be one of the most talented guys I've ever coached. The rest of the guys were really good – I hate to tell you, they were juniors and seniors. They were veterans. But, I played five.
"If you asked these guys, would you rather play half-a-game, or just play every minute, what do you think they're going to say? 'I'll be good. I'll play every minute.’”
Nick Richards and Washington scored 10 of Kentucky’s first 19 points and combined for 12 in the opening half. Richards added three rebounds and two blocked shots.
Kentucky led for most of the first half and closed out half with a 6-0 run, turning a slim 30-27 lead into a 36-27 advantage at the half. Vandy led 6-4 early, but the Wildcats grabbed the lead for good with an 11-0 run as the Commodores went scoreless for four minutes, aiding Kentucky’s run.
Jeff Roberson led the Commodores (6-11, 1-4) with 20 points and Saben Lee had 12. Vanderbilt has lost seven games this season by single digits.
Gametracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, 9 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.