No. 5 Kentucky edges Vermont
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Following Kentucky’s 73-69 victory over Vermont on Sunday, which saw the Catamounts miss two chances to possibly force overtime, coach John Calipari had one simple question.
“You cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything. You got to play good teams,” Calipari said. “Now, I didn’t realize how good this team was until I watched the tape and then I’m like, ‘Who scheduled this to be our second game? This is ridiculous.’”
Truth be told, Calipari knew exactly what he was doing when Vermont was added to the 2017-18 schedule. Coach John Becker returned four starters from last season’s 29-win, NCAA Tournament team and Calipari knew that would be an incredible learning opportunity for his five freshmen starters.
“They just do an unbelievable job,” Calipari said. “If you watch them, they create good shots for each other. Each time down, they’re either shooting layups or 3s. Defensively, they fight like crazy, they’re a terrific rebounding team. And how about this, I knew they wouldn’t give up and I told my team at halftime, ‘These guys know how to win, man, they won 29 games last year.’”
The lessons learned were invaluable for the youngest team in America. Freshman forward Kevin Knox drained a huge 3-pointer and freshman point guard Quade Green swished two free throws with the pressure on to maintain the lead down the stretch.
“I would rather have won it by more, but to have to make plays at the end. How about Kevin’s 3? That was big,” Calipari said. “I need to know late in the game he can make that shot. How about Quade making free throws? Needs to be in the game at the end.”
Kentucky (2-0) built as much as a 14-point lead early in the second half before Vermont began to slowly chip away.
At the 10:36 mark, the lead was eight. At 6:25, it was five points. And with 1:42 left to play, the margin was just three points.
Incredibly, only one point was scored the rest of the way, a free throw by freshman forward P.J. Washington with two seconds left. Kentucky had one missed shot on one turnover, Vermont had three missed 3-pointers and two missed free throws.
Kentucky got a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds from Washington, his best performance of the young season.
“I thought P.J. was a beast, finally,” Calipari said. “First time this year. I just called him in and I said, ‘That’s what you need to be every practice and every game.’”
Kentucky also got 16 points from freshman guard Hamidou Diallo, 15 from Green and 11 from Knox.
Vermont (0-1) was led by senior guard Trae Bell-Haynes with 16 points. Sophomore forward Anthony Lamb added 15.
“Our aspirations are to win these games,” Becker said. “I have a pretty experienced group, a team that won a lot of games last year with the NCAA Tournament. I think there’s a feeling of frustration that we’re not quite there yet, but we’re excited to get back to work. It’s just a possession or two, especially against a team like that.”
Kentucky, playing three games in five days, now travels to Chicago to face No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic. No. 1 Duke meets No. 2 Michigan State in the other game of the doubleheader.
“Kentucky is a team that’s going to have to be reckoned with for a national championship,” Becker said.
NOTES: Last season, Vermont became the first team in the 38-year history of the America East conference to finish league play undefeated. The 29 wins were a school record ... Coach John Calipari won his 250th game at Kentucky in Friday’s season opener against Utah Valley and now stands four wins shy of 700 career wins ... When the NBA season started recently, 27 former Kentucky players were on opening-day rosters, most of all colleges. Duke was second with 20.