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Just like you, I always hate watching basketball games played in Memorial Gym for a couple of reasons. First, you always feel like they must be filming the game from the roof, and secondly, Kentucky always struggled to get a victory.
So two years ago, I made my first and only trip to the oldest basketball arena in the SEC to watch Kentucky take on Vanderbilt in what turned out to be the decisive victory en route to the conference crown. Besides witnessing a thrilling Wildcats victory, I also got to see what would have to be the strangest arena I have ever set foot in.
The most obvious difference is the team benches being located at the ends of the court, but what stood out most to me was the elevation of the court in comparison to the stands on the sides of the gym. If you are sitting in what would normally be considered the best seats in the house, you are actually looking up at the action. Dick Vitale probably still has a strained neck from having to look up to call the action for the ESPN telecast. Just a very odd setting to say the least, but somewhere every college basketball fan should go at least once to see a game.
After days of pundits saying Kentucky was in for their first SEC loss, Calipari asking for his team to be challenged, and Vanderbilt’s history of taking out No. 1 teams in Nashville, it seemed like the Cats were destined for a long day at the office. Evidently this Wildcat team missed the memo. Led by outstanding play from Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Terrence Jones, UK dominated the first half with swarming defense and tremendous offensive execution in leading 36-23 at the half.
Unfortunately, the second half was a different story. The Commodores came out on fire, seemingly unable to miss from the three point line, while throwing a zone defense at the Cats that they struggled to figure out. Vanderbilt tied the game at 48 with just under twelve minutes to go in the game on a Jeffrey Taylor three and would take the lead for the first time in a long time only seconds later.
So Coach Calipari finally got his wish of a close game on the road with a hot shooting opponent and momentum completely against his young Cats. Kentucky trailed by four with eight minutes to go and again by a deuce with four minutes left on the clock before a Lamb three put them ahead for good. Anthony Davis and company put the clamps on Vandy, holding them without a point for the last 4:10 of the game. Kentucky wins 69-63.
For me, the story of the night was again the tremendous play of Marquis Teague. Teague had quite a stat line with 13 points, four rebounds, eight assists, and only one turnover. Look, Vanderbilt is an experienced, physical team with good size, strength, and athleticism at every position. The one spot where there was a clear advantage was at the point and Teague took advantage of his quickness and strength to dominate the game either with clever passing or scoring. I know that everyone has picked up their game in this impressive string of victories, but there is no doubt that point guard play has been the impetus.
The Kentucky defense once again held an opponent under 40% and would have been even better save the first 10 minutes of the second half when the Commodores couldn’t miss. We all know about Davis and his unbelievable ability to change the game, but the pressure this team is putting on every shot attempt has been amazing. In the final four minutes of the game, I don’t think there was a single open look to be had. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Defense wins championships.
Another impressive aspect of the win was the ability of the team to pull out a tough road win with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Darius Miller struggling in different ways. MKG was just having one of those nights where he couldn’t get a shot to fall and had a bad case of butter fingers with three turnovers on the night. Miller on the other hand couldn’t stay on the floor, picking up three fouls in the first half and his fourth with over seventeen minutes left in the game. He redeemed himself with big plays down the stretch and likely the most important bucket of the game on the falling down assist from Teague.
Now Kentucky gets a week off before it’s’ next game against Ole Miss at home on Saturday afternoon. The Cats are clearly in the driver’s seat for the SEC title with only five games remaining in the regular season, but there are still some dangerous road tests on the horizon. Can UK run the table in the SEC? We’re about to find out.