NASHVILLE — After five straight breezes to victory, Kentucky Coach John Calipari voiced his desire for a stiff headwind. He got it at Vanderbilt Saturday night.
Vandy rallied from a 14-point deficit to test UK. The Cats answered with enough clutch plays to win 69-63.
"Two teams slugging it out," Calipari called it. "It really was. They weren't going to go away. We weren't going to go away.
"We made a couple shots. They missed a couple shots. That's the only reason we won."
Vandy used a zone defense and 12-for-16 shooting to open the second half and put Kentucky to the test. Trailing 63-61, Doron Lamb's three-pointer put the Cats ahead for good with 3:18 left.
UK's defense, which dominated the first half, held Vandy without a point in the final 4:10.
"We said in every huddle, 'We're going to lock up defensively,' " Anthony Davis said.
Kentucky improved to 25-1 overall and 11-0 in the Southeastern Conference. Marquis Teague, who had 13 points, eight assists and one turnover in 37 minutes, declared UK's three-game lead in the SEC with five to play insurmountable.
"We'll be real surprised" to not win the league," Teague said. "... We're not going to lose that many games."
Lamb led UK with 16 points. Davis added 15 (and eight rebounds and seven blocks). Terrence Jones chipped in with 14 points and four blocks.
John Jenkins, who made only five of 14 shots, led Vandy with 15 points. Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley and Festus Ezeli scored 13 each.
Kentucky dominated most of the first half in taking a 36-23 lead at intermission.
The final basket of the first half typified UK's early superiority. Davis posted up smartly and maneuvered around Ezeli for a score with five seconds left to set the halftime score.
Vandy tried much of the half to have Ezeli post up for scores against Davis. Vandy's big man did not once score off a post-up move against him in the first half. It wasn't for lack of trying. Vandy went to Ezeli on its first five trips downcourt. He scored once, taking a pick-and-roll pass for a running dunk.
Otherwise, Ezeli struggled to a four-point half on 2-for-7 shooting.
With Vandy cold from three-point range (1-for-7 to start the game), Kentucky didn't need much offense to take control.
UK's defense limited Vandy to two baskets from the 15-minute mark until Brad Tinsley hit a three-pointer with 4:32 left in the half. In that span, the Commodores made only two of 16 shots (or one fewer than UK blocked in that time).
In one telling sequence, Taylor rebounded a miss and looked to pass rather than go up for a put-back. His seemingly panicked pass went out of bounds nowhere near a teammate.
Kentucky did not leave Davis to deal with Ezeli alone. More than once, a UK player provided help defense and separated Ezeli from the ball.
Kentucky took the lead for good in the first half on Lamb's three-point play with 13:53 left. The margin grew to as much as 14 three times late in the half. On the first, Teague's help defense got the ball from Ezeli. He fed Jones for a fast-break layup.
Jones' 14-point first half exceeded his total in 13 previous games this season. It included an improvised shot in which he drove right across the lane and shot against his body.
A Vandy second-half rally came quickly. Before the first TV timeout, the Commodores had five baskets (in six shots). It took almost 13 minutes of the first half for the Commodores to score that many baskets.
Ezeli began the spurt with his first post-up basket against Davis. That came 22 seconds into the second half.
When Jenkins hit a jumper to reduce UK's lead to 36-27, Calipari called timeout with 18:52 left.
Taylor, who had one first-half basket, excited the crowd with a driving dunk while being fouled by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
After Ezeli again posted for a score against Davis, Taylor swished a three-pointer. When Jenkins hit a catch-and-shoot three-pointer in transition from the top of the key, Vandy had closed to within three at 44-41. UK called time with 14:04 left.
Vandy tied it at 48 on a Taylor three-pointer with 11:59 left. His shot made Vandy 10-for-14 to start the second half.
Vandy took its first lead since 9-8 when Teague lost sight of Tinsley, who cut to a dunk with 9:44 left. Two Ezeli free throws gave the Commodores their largest lead: 55-51 with 8:42 left.
Neither team led by more than four heading into the climatic final two minutes.
When asked what the high-flying Cats learned in the drama Calipari requested, Teague said, "We just learned how much heart we have."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.comJerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com