JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Kentucky Outmuscles Alabama 81-71; Jarred Vanderbilt Shines
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky finally won its first matchup in February of 2018.
After losing all four games this month, the Wildcats found a way to win, outmuscling Alabama 81-71 Saturday, Feb. 17 at Rupp Arena and snapping their rare four-game losing streak.
It was an exciting contest which saw the game change leads 15 times and tie eight times before Kentucky took charge with less than four minutes remaining, outscoring the Crimson Tide 12-4 and playing aggressive defense. During that span, it was freshman Jarred Vanderbilt (pictured) who battled and scored six critical points around the basket – a dunk, a layup and a tip-in.
The Wildcats, who improved to 18-9 overall and 7-7 in SEC play, had to attack the board to stay alive and they did, outrebounding Alabama 44-27 with Vanderbilt grabbing a game-high nine rebounds in only 19 minutes of action. Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel also battled, getting seven rebounds.
Kentucky coach John Calipari praised Vanderbilt’s performance, comparing him to former NBA star Dennis Rodman.
Vanderbilt added, “I think he (Coach Cal) just means the effort with rebounding and stuff like that; just impacting the game. I didn’t really watch him (Rodman) that much but I hear he plays hard and gives all effort.”
Playing in his 10th contest after missing the first 17 games because of a preseason foot injury, Vanderbilt also scored a career-high 11 points to go along with his other four teammates who hit double figures. Freshman P.J. Washington led UK’s scoring attack with 16 points.
Vanderbilt, a McDonald’s All-American from Houston who nearly got a double-double, admits his confidence is growing after making late shots in the game.
“I saw a couple of them drop,” he said. “That obviously boosts your confidence. I missed some early in the game but I just kept playing and they ended up falling late in the game.”
Alabama, which hit only 6 of 24 three-pointers for 25 percent, was led by 6-9 junior Donta Hall, who had 16 points.
With the loss, the Crimson Tide – who own a 5-1 record against Associated Press Top 25 clubs -- saw their season mark drop to 17-10 overall and 8-6 in SEC.
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Kentucky now has four regular season games remaining on schedule -- two home matchups with Missouri and Ole Miss and two road games at Arkansas and at Florida.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson -- who is now 0-6 against the Wildcats including two SEC tournament games -- likes UK’s chances in the NCAA tournament
"They are still a dangerous team, having the depth and the length and size that they have on their team,” he said. “It’s just a matter of if they can make some boards. We did a pretty good job of defending at the three-point line, but they beat us up on board.
“We had the chance to win in a tough environment. We got to be better in the last four minutes of a game, but this is a tough team. They are still a tournament team.”
I agree. UK’s NCAA tournament resume is still pretty good, especially if the Cats win at least two more regular season games and at least one SEC tournament matchup in St. Louis. That would give Kentucky a 21-12 overall record against a tough schedule that is rated the fifth toughest in the nation as of Feb. 14. Also, through games on Feb. 14, UK was ranked No. 20 in NCAA’s official RPI (Ratings Percentage Index).
In my opinion, Kentucky is capable of making a Final Four trip. Or it can lose in the first round.
Nevertheless, it's going to be a very nerve-wracking time in the Big Blue Nation.
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Kentucky is on the road for a Tuesday night date with Arkansas which will be televised by ESPN, beginning at 9:00 p.m. ET.
The Razorbacks are currently on a roll after dominating No. 21 Texas A&M 94-75 Saturday as they won their fourth straight game. Arkansas is 19-8 overall and 8-6 in SEC.
Entering Saturday, Feb. 16 games, the Razorbacks have the second-best scoring offense (behind Auburn) and highest three-point field goal shooting percentage in the SEC, but they are next to last in scoring defense. Interestingly, it may help that UK has the league’s best three-point field goal defense in shooting percentage.
Tuesday night's game should be another barnburner and a high-scoring affair.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the executive editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
UK Athletics Photo by Elliott Hess