NASHVILLE, Tenn. – For everything Kentucky's John Calipari is or isn’t as a basketball coach, give him credit for one thing.
He’s not afraid to point the finger at himself.
In his own words, Calipari called a boneheaded timeout with 2.5 seconds to play Saturday night, giving Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings a chance to draw up a length-of-the-court play at the end and the Commodores a great chance to send the game into overtime.
"As we left the timeout, I said guys, ‘This is the stupidest timeout I’ve ever called. Please make me look good. Somebody do something,' " Calipari recounted.
As fate would have it, A.J. Ogilvy’s runner in the lane rolled off the rim as the buzzer sounded, and the No. 2-ranked Wildcats survived for the second straight time this week on the road in an ear-splitting, hostile environment.
This one was a grind-it-out 58-56 victory over the No. 19 ranked Commodores, ending their 18-game winning streak at Memorial Gym.
"Hats off to Vandy. That was an Elite Eight environment," Calipari said. "That was two teams slugging it out and doing what they had to do to win the game."
The Wildcats (26-1, 11-1) won for the first time in five years in Memorial Gym, all but locking up the SEC championship and affixing their name to one of those four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
No, they weren’t perfect, and neither was their coach. In fact, they were far from it.
Over and above Calipari’s late-game blunder, Kentucky turned the ball over 14 times, shot just 35.8 percent from the field (3-of-16 from 3-point range), missed three of its final four free throws and was beaten on the boards.
That said, these guys are oozing with talent, and even when they make freshman mistakes and even when they don’t play their best or smartest basketball, there’s a fearlessness about them and an aura about them that they’re going to find a way to get it done.
Those are priceless qualities to have come NCAA tournament time.
“You gotta be a team that can grind it,” said Calipari, who was still kicking himself afterward for calling the late timeout. “We want to play fast. Everybody knows how I coach. We want to try and score 100. But if you want us to play in the 50s, we’ll play you in the 50s and we’ll try to beat you. If you want to play a zone, we’ll try to beat you that way.
“We don’t force our will on the other team. We want to play different ways. When you get in that NCAA tournament, you don’t know if you’re playing a team that plays like Princeton, plays fast, plays slow. You’ve got to beat them.
“This was one of those. I love this, shooting 35 percent and 18 (percent) from the 3 and winning anyway.”
A shooting clinic it wasn’t on either side.
The two teams combined to make just 5 of 36 shots from 3-point range. Nobody had connected from long range in the second half until Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson buried a 3-pointer from the corner at the 3:55 mark to give the Wildcats a three-point lead.
Patterson finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds and played 39 minutes. The Wildcats needed everything he gave them, too, because DeMarcus Cousins was in foul trouble and freshman point guard John Wall was struggling to make anything. Wall was 3-of-11 from the field, but still ended up making two of the biggest plays of the game.
His put-back after being stripped on a drive with 39.1 seconds remaining gave Kentucky the lead for good.
And then on the other end, Wall blocked John Jenkins’ 3-point attempt with just under four seconds to play and the Wildcats clinging to a one-point lead.
A few seconds earlier, Jenkins had pump faked and got Wall off his feet in drilling a 3-pointer to bring the Commodores within a point. But this time, Wall didn’t go for the pump fake and sent it back into Jenkins’ face.
In each of the past two games, Calipari said Kentucky’s defense in the final minutes has been about as good as it gets. On Tuesday, the Wildcats snuffed out Mississippi State on the road in overtime.
“We’re big. We’re long. We’re athletic. We’re quick. We’re tough physically. Mentally, we’re tough,” Calipari said. “If we’re going to advance, that’s what it will be on.
“And if we’re making shots, we bury people. If we don’t make shots, then you’re going to grind it out.”
Despite going 2-0 in two tough places to play this week, Calipari said there’s a youthful carelessness about this team that reared its head in both the Mississippi State and Vanderbilt wins.
“We did things that gave the other team a chance to beat us in both places, and that’s because we’re inexperienced and young,” Calipari said. “We break down on a play. We do our own thing. We try to go for a steal when we need to just play solid defense.
"Again, we’re the youngest team in the country (actually the 14th youngest, according to Kentucky’s pregame notes). There’s no one playing as many young guys as we do. We’re young.
“But, also, the good news is they don’t know they’re not supposed to win here. They think they’re supposed to win. That ain’t bad, either. The problem is that if you give good teams a chance to beat you, they’re going to beat you.”
Patterson said nobody on Kentucky’s team has given any thought to what the bigger picture might hold for the Wildcats after two clutch wins away from home.
All that will come later.
“We know every team we play is going to bring their ‘A’ game,” Patterson said. “We don’t worry about anything like (securing a No. 1 seed). We know what our record is, but we don’t focus on that.
“We just focus on winning.”