8:23:54 MBB vs Vandy

Kentucky players shake hands with Vanderbilt players after the game against Vanderbilt on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 71-62. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

It was a tale of two halves for the No. 13 team in the land Tuesday evening, each of which were impacted by the man in the middle. Nick Richards sitting because of foul trouble resulted in a halftime deficit, but his consistent presence in the second half ultimately keyed the Wildcats’ 71-62 victory over pesky Vanderbilt.

“What did you learn about my team when you watched this game?” coach John Calipari asked the media afterward. “[We] need Nick.”

Tyrese Maxey, who led all Kentucky scorers with 17 points, also gave credit to Richards for the team’s turnaround.

“Nick, honestly,” he replied when asked about the difference between halves. “Having him on the court always helps.”

The NCAA March Madness National Player of the Week followed his performances against Georgia and Texas Tech with two early fouls, restricting him to just five first-half minutes. He missed his only shot and had only one rebound in that time. He responded after the break by notching a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) while playing 17 of the 20 minutes.

“I don’t think the best Nick Richards you’re gonna see is gonna happen while he’s here,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “His ceiling is gonna be a lot higher at the next level.”

Richards appreciated the kind words from the 18-year NBA veteran, and forecast future success for him in Nashville.

“I’m really blessed that he said that,” he said. “It’s nice that other coaches are seeing the work I’ve been putting in off the court… in a few years, his team is gonna be really good.”

The improvements from his training have been drastic, but Richards knows he’s far from being a finished product. But where he says he needs to improve the most from this point is not easy to accomplish.

“Staying out of foul trouble,” he answered.

Coach Cal agrees his fouls are something Kentucky cannot afford.

“[He] can’t do that to us,” he said. “We need [him] on the court.”

Kentucky’s win moved its record to 16-4 overall, and 6-1 in the SEC. The Wildcats have been victorious in eight of their last nine.

Vanderbilt’s loss was a new record twenty-five straight in the conference. The Commodores are 8-12 on the year with an 0-7 SEC mark. They’ll look to end the dubious streak at home versus Florida on Saturday.

Kentucky heads into another raucous road environment to face No. 17 Auburn, who survived Ole Miss in double overtime on Tuesday night. The Wildcats went 2-1 against the Tigers last season, but are looking for a measure of revenge because the lone loss came in the Elite Eight.

College GameDay will be in attendance for the matchup, which is Saturday. Tip is set for 6:00 p.m. ET on ESPN. The game can also be seen on the ESPN app.