They were just about to give it all back.
All the good will they had fostered with the comeback victory at West Virginia. All the respect. All the admiration that comes with battling back in a wicked tough place. All the love.
It was all gone. Almost…
It’s hard to imagine what the trip home from Lexington was like for the Vanderbilt Commodores. They had Kentucky down; floundering; beaten – this same UK team that showed so much courage in Morgantown.
The Wildcats had walked into Rupp Arena, thrown their shoes on the court and acted as though they expected Vandy to genuflect. Instead, the Commodores punched them in the mouth, and punched them again.
Their bus was warmed up, bags half-packed. Doubtful that Bryce Drew was already thinking about what he would say at the podium after coaching his 8-13 (soon to be 9-13) squad to an upset over the nation’s #17 team. He’s young, but he’s too smart for that.
Still, he had to love the way his team kept fighting off whatever attempts the Wildcats were making at a comeback in front of a crowd so ready to love them again, after that heroic victory at WVU.
Instead, fans were leaving as Vandy inched toward a stunning victory. And yet, it was the Commodores who would breathe just enough life into the Wildcats – by missing free throws and then fouling late, giving the Cats the chances to score with the clock arrested. Kentucky had barely enough ticks left.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit the two biggest free throws of his young career to send the game into overtime, where Quade Green sank a stunningly wide-open layup. A dog pile ensued. The love was secure – at least, for another few days.
“Rupp got loud,” Green said. He was at the bottom of the pile. “Everybody was on top of me.”
The Kentucky fan base would have been on top of this entire team, had the Wildcats not figured out a way to pull this off. “We keep fighting,” Green said. “We’re some fighters.”
And while they’re still searching for consistency, they’re becoming more and more comfortable with sharing the glory. P.J. Washington scored 22 last week in the win over Mississippi State. Kevin Knox was a one-man offensive wrecking crew with 34 against West Virginia. Gilgeous-Alexander poured in 30 against Vandy.
“We know it’s going to be like that,” he said. “There are so many talented guys who go to Kentucky.
“It could be anybody’s night, any night, really. The other night it was Kevin. The night before that it was P.J. The night before that it was Hami (Diallo). You just never know.”
And that’s what makes this team so maddening, at times. It’s as though they’re out there trying to decide among themselves: Who’s it going to be tonight? Which is fine – as long as they don’t allow the other guys to run off to large, comfy leads while they’re deciding.
In fact on Tuesday, it wasn’t any of the players who made the decision at all. Kenny Payne let Gilgeous-Alexander know, it was his time to attack.
“It was coach KP tonight,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He gave me a look and said, It’s time.”
That was with the Wildcats down 12 in the second half. And for the second straight game, they had their fans - and coaches - grinding their teeth. But they found some way (with a large measure of help from Vandy) to pull it out.
“I think the fact that we’re winning these games is important,” said Payne, pinch-hitting for John Calipari, who’s still battling the flu. “So that shows there’s a will to win, but, my goodness, I wish it was a little easier.”
Kentucky fans are right there with him. They’re ready to show the love – if these young Wildcats could just give them a chance to relax, every now and then.