Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kentucky 65 - 57 Vanderbilt (No. 2,158)

Ken Pomeroy had the Cats winning this game 72-53, but this prediction did not adequately account for Vandy's obsession with the Big Blue.  For decades, the height of the Vandy athletic year was UK's annual trip to Memorial Gym in Nashville.  And no Vandy coach in my memory has focused on beating the Cats more than Kevin Stallings.  He took a while to get his sea legs against the Cats -- losing 9 of his first 11 contests against the Wildcats.  But since then, he has gone 9-11 against them -- which is really good considering how strong the Cats have been in recent years.  Stallings also knocked UK out of the SEC Tournament in both 2012 and 2013.

Coach Cal has gone 9-3 against Vandy -- but only once has he beaten the Commodores by more than 9 points.

This year, because of the new SEC schedule, UK will not visit Memorial Gym for the first time since it was opened in 1954.  So this was Vandy's only shot at the Cats, and they were ready.  Vandy hasn't done much since winning the 2012 SEC Tournament, and this year Stallings has decided to start over with an extremely young line-up.  The Dores started three freshmen and two sophomores against UK, and of course none of their guys are projected as future NBA picks.  But I think going young will be a good move for Vandy, as their guys showed a lot of ability.  Two of their freshmen -- Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis -- combined to go 7-11 from three-point range, which shows that Vandy is getting back its usual outside stroke.

Stallings also tried something else that was difference -- he had his guys play man-to-man defense against UK for the whole game.  In response, Calipari had UK sending the ball inside on almost every possession.  For the game, UK shot only six three-pointers, while Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee combined to take 18 shots.  Unfortunately for the Cats, their inside game wasn't working all that well.  UK shot only 16-40 from two-point range, and turned the ball over 13 times.  Even more annoying for UK fans, a number of those turnovers were quickly converted into run-outs by the aggressive Vandy frosh.

The result of all this maneuvering was a tortoise and hare sort of game where UK never really seemed to be in danger, but could never put Vandy away.  UK led 12-4; Vandy cut it to 14-13.  UK led 21-13; Vandy cut it to 27-24.  UK led 33-24; Vandy cut it to 33-30.  UK led 45-33 with 11:32 left -- surely now the Cats were safe.  But with 7:51 left, another LaChance three-pointer cut UK's lead to 50-46.  And with 5:06 to go, Fisher-Davis hit another three-pointer to bring Vandy within three:  54-51.

And so it was back to old school basketball:  Cauley-Stein, the Harrison twins and some hard-nosed defense:

1.  With 4:22 left, Willie Cauley-Stein stole the ball.  A few seconds later, his jumper put UK up 56-51.

2.  With 3:50 left, Karl-Anthony Towns blocked a shot by Damian Jones.  Cauley-Stein grabbed the rebound.

3.  With 3:17 left, Aaron Harrison made two free throws to put UK up 58-51.

4.  With 2:36 left, one more three-pointer by Fisher-Davis made the score 58-54, but 27 seconds later, Aaron Harrison answered to put UK up 61-54.

5.  With 1:07 left, the Cats set a beautiful wall of screens for Andrew Harrison, whose layup gave UK a 63-55 lead.  And that was pretty much it.

18-0 for the season.  5-0 in Conference.  13 games to go.

Aaron Harrison had one of his best games of the year:  2-4 from two-point range, 2-3 from three-point range, 4-4 from the line -- 14 very efficient points in only 23 minutes.  Shout-outs are also due to Marcus Lee (7 points in 12 minutes) and Cauley-Stein (6 points and 10 rebounds in 27 minutes).

It will be interesting to see if other teams try to play UK man-to-man.  If so, the Cats will need to handle the ball better on the inside than they did against Vandy.  But on the whole, this was a solid win over a very scrappy rival.

On the other hand, UK will need to play better in its upcoming road game (at 11 A.M. Central!) against South Carolina.

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