LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky coach John Calipari has practiced his young team in football pads and put them in front of punching bags to toughen them up.
But it’s what he said that gave the 20th-ranked Wildcats (21-8 overall, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) the edge against Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
“They held onto the rope,” he said of the two-point win over the Commodores.
He hopes the Wildcats carry that tug-of-war mindset into Sunday’s game at Tennessee.
Kentucky has struggled in games late this season, especially on the road. The Wildcats have lost six of seven road conference games so far, the losses all by seven points or less. Calipari hopes the taut 68-66 win over Vanderbilt, though it was at Rupp Arena, gave his team confidence it can win close games as it moves toward postseason play.
Sunday’s game also weighs heavily on SEC Tournament seeding. Kentucky is one of three teams currently tied for the Eastern Division’s No. 2 seed, which comes with a first-round bye. For the Wildcats to earn the bye, they must beat Tennessee and hope either Vanderbilt or Georgia loses its final regular-season game.
Tennessee (18-12, 8-7) has plenty riding on the outcome too. There’s a chance they could avoid playing on the first day of the SEC tourney with a win. Coach Bruce Pearl, however, is hardly concerned about getting an extra day off.
“That’s really not the issue,” said Pearl, whose team was drilled by the Wildcats at Rupp Arena last month. “The issue is for us to continue to try to play better.”
Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones said he and his teammates have focused on what went well down the stretch and what can be done to replicate that performance.
“Well first of all, I would say that was probably the first time we were up in that situation instead of down,” Jones said. “It’s tough to come back on a team with that little bit of time left just worrying about trying to win. Vandy was playing us when we were at home and we were ahead, so it was less tough than it would have been otherwise. But we really executed and we really made free throws, which was really important.”
Though the Wildcats haven’t been able to win a game down the stretch on the road, Jones said doing it at home at least showed his team what it takes. And since his six-man rotation includes three freshmen, just being shown what to do is important, he said, no matter the circumstance.
And those freshmen—Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb—were big Tuesday. They combined to hit 7 of 8 from the free-throw line in the game’s final 1:36 to give Kentucky the win.
“We’re definitely going to have more close games to come,” junior Darius Miller said. “Hopefully we can use that experience to get more wins.”
A rotation heavy with freshmen has Calipari concerned about all of the factors weighing against the Wildcats on Sunday.
The Volunteers, coming off a win against South Carolina, will be looking to send their six seniors—Josh Bone, John Fields, Melvin Goins, Michael Hubert, Steven Pearl and Brian Williams—out in style.
Kentucky is looking to spoil the party. Calipari says his teams usually enjoy going on the road and “ruining people’s weekends.” That hasn’t been the case this year, but he believes there’s still time for Kentucky to grow up playing away from Rupp.
“I’ll say it again: I know for a fact there’s nobody in the country asking their freshmen to do more than we are,” Calipari said. “It’s not even close. Other teams have freshmen that are playing well but if they don’t, they’re OK. We’re not in that position. These kids have to perform.”