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The University of Kentucky men’s basketball team is learning to “love the road.”
On Saturday, the Wildcats gave up a 13-point halftime lead and trailed by as much as four points in the second half but held Vanderbilt scoreless for the final 4:10 to escape Nashville with a 69-63 win.
“These were two teams slugging it out, it really was,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “They weren’t going to go away. We weren’t going to go away. We made a couple shots, they missed a couple shots, so we win. That’s the only reason.”
The Wildcats took the lead for good on a three-point basket from sophomore guard Doron Lamb with 3:18 remaining in the game. After freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made two free throws, senior guard Darius Miller hit a layup as the shot clock expired to give UK a five-point lead with 1:13 left.
“We told each other in every huddle that we had that we were going to lock up defensively,” said freshman forward Anthony Davis. “We needed a stop, and the only way were were going to win the game was to lock up. That’s what we tried to do.”
Miller had spent most of the game on the bench in foul trouble, but he helped UK turn back the Vanderbilt rally with two points, two assists and two rebounds in the final 3:18.
“What I told the guys: ‘It doesn’t matter how you play the whole game, it’s those last three or four minutes,’” Calipari said. “Darius had not played well and then came to that point, he was outstanding. That’s why I left him in the game. I wasn’t going to take him out.”
The Wildcats dominated in the first half, shooting 53.3 percent (16-30) from the field, but the UK players said they expected Vanderbilt to make a run.
“We knew the home crowd was going to get into it,” Davis said. “It was packed. All you saw was black and gold. We knew they were going to make a run.”
“They play great here, got a lot of great shooters,” said UK freshman point guard Marquis Teague. “We never thought they were out of it. We just wanted to keep playing and try to get the lead.”
Vanderbilt rallied behind the strength of its three-point shooting: The Commodores hit five threes in the second half.
“They got back in the game with the three,” Calipari said. “I kept telling them in every huddle, ‘make them beat us shooting twos.’”
The Wildcat players eventually got the message as Vanderbilt missed its final five three-point attempts of the game.
UK was led in scoring by Lamb, who had 16 points. Davis fished with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. Sophomore forward Terrence Jones scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Teague scored 13 points and tallied eight assists with just one turnover.
UK shot 48.3 percent (28-58) from the field and held Vanderbilt to 36.5 percent (23-63) shooting.
UK had won its last four games by a combined 103 points, but Calipari and players said a close win like Saturday’s could help UK in the long run.
“We need all this,” Calipari said. “I told them in every huddle, ‘This is great for us.’ I kept saying in every huddle, ‘This is exactly what we need.’”
“We needed a game where we had to fight,” Teague said. “We’ve been beating people by 20, 15, things like that. This was a good game for us to build up on our experience and just to go get ready.”
Before the game, Calipari wrote ‘love the road’ on the dry erase board in the locker room. His team is starting to get the message.
“We say that we all live for this: playing on the road,” Davis said. “There’s nothing better than playing on the road, especially in and environment like this…Playing on the road in these type of games is going to make us a better team.”
This story has been corrected to note Anthony Davis had seven blocks, not seven assists.