By Joe Cox
LEXINGTON, Ky. — As the Kentucky Wildcats wrapped up at least a share of their 48th regular season Southeastern Conference title Tuesday night, no one could say that it was easy. Or boring.
Seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, and Mychal Mulder started their final game in Rupp Arena and the Wildcats promptly fell behind by 19 points midway through the first half. Vanderbilt led for almost 34 minutes of the game before Kentucky completed the school’s largest successful comeback win since 1997.
Kentucky trailed 25-6 with just over eight minutes to play in the first half, trimmed the gap to 30-24 at halftime, but trailed 47-34 with just under 14 minutes remaining. The Wildcats, mostly using a newly unveiled trapping pressure defense, rallied late, led by Malik Monk’s 27 points, to post a 73-67 victory.
The game took place on the last day of February, but coach John Calipari was pleased by his team’s resilience in a March Madness-style comeback. “That’s how you’ve got to play basketball in March,” Calipari said of his team’s effort. “You’ve got to fight and stick together.”
Sticking together was certainly on the mind of the team’s trio of seniors, each of whom helped in gaining the victory. Mulder had five points in seven minutes, including an impressive baseline dunk. Hawkins played 21 minutes, giving a typically all-out effort with harassing on-the-ball defense and gritty hustle plays, finishing with two points, two rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
Willis had a memorable night, as he used the pre-game Senior Night ceremonies to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Keely Potts. Fortunately for the big senior, Potts’ consideration provided considerably less suspense than the outcome of the game.
“It was a pretty cool moment for me,” admitted the newly-engaged forward. “I’m glad I could share it with everyone in Rupp Arena.”
Willis also shared a team-high eight rebounds and three blocked shots with Rupp Arena. He had only three points, but his three-point basket provided Kentucky with its first lead of the game with 4:47 to play.
From there, Malik Monk took over. The team’s leading scorer had 10 points in the final 3:40 of the game to help nail down the win. Monk struggled early but finished with 27 points, including draining 9-of-10 free throws. Edrice “Bam” Adebayo chipped in with 16 points and six rebounds, and De’Aaron Fox added 13 points in his first game back after a minor knee injury.
With the victory, Kentucky improved to 15-2 in SEC play, and 25-5 on the season. Any further Florida losses or a Kentucky win Saturday at Texas A&M would clinch sole possession of the SEC regular season title for UK.
The Gators host Arkansas Wednesday night and then play at Vanderbilt on Saturday.
The Commodores fell to 9-8 in league play and 16-14 overall. Vandy could finish as high as fifth in the SEC regular season standings or as low as 10th, but will avoid playing in next Wednesday night’s first-round games of the SEC tournament in Nashville.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, and his most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games), is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at email@example.com.