After driving for a layup while being fouled, Ryan Harrow screamed in exultation. But a reason to gain a bit of reassurance, if not scream for joy, came a moment later in Kentucky's 74-70 victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.
Harrow missed the free throw, then raced down the lane for the rebound. He smartly kept his balance near the end line and found teammate Kyle Wiltjer in the right corner.
Wiltjer's three-pointer put UK ahead 42-30 with 2:18 left in the first half. That margin looked like heaven given the hellish memory of the 88-58 smackdown Tennessee inflicted on the Cats last weekend.
As Vandy big man Josh Henderson noted earlier in the week, UK looked "all out of sorts" at Tennessee in its first game without Nerlens Noel.
In beating Vandy, Kentucky looked better prepared to carry on. The Cats hustled, as evidenced by Harrow's rebound of his own missed free throw, and led the final 35:56. The Cats also showed plenty of resolve in staying ahead as Vandy repeatedly rallied down the stretch.
Act II of Kentucky without Noel better reflected Shakespeare's observation about finding positives in a negative situation. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," he said.
That was certainly true of Willie Cauley-Stein, the stand-in for Noel. He scored a career-high 20 points and blocked three shots.
The adversity represented by Noel's season-ending injury faded from significance, at least against a Vandy team that had won once away from home since Dec. 6.
That appeared especially true for Harrow, who scored 12 points. He hadn't scored in the two previous games, and he had lost his starting position to Jarrod Polson at Tennessee. He started against Vandy.
The layup part of Harrow's score/rebound/pass triple crown had added significance. It marked UK's 23rd and 24th points from the paint, which meant the Cats needed less than 18 minutes to surpass the 22 points from the paint scored at Tennessee.
Vandy, a less-imposing team around the basket than the Vols, had only eight points from the paint in the first half. Overall, UK outscored Vandy 38-24 in the lane.
Aside from three-point shooting, primarily Rod Odom over Alex Poythress, the Commodores posed no serious threat to Kentucky in the first half.
The Cats zipped to a 23-9 lead inside the first 10 minutes. Cauley-Stein capped that break from the gate with a dunk, which contributed to 18 of the first 23 points coming from the paint.
Kentucky, 18-8 overall and 9-4 in the Southeastern Conference, never led by more than 14 points. The lead stood at 58-45 when Vandy hit back-to-back three-pointers to close within 58-51.
As in the game at Vanderbilt last month, a Kentucky victory would not come easy.
"We're not going to give in," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said after a 63-56 victory over Texas A&M last weekend. "These kids are not going to give in. They're not cut that way."
Vanderbilt, which had been prone to relinquishing second-half leads this season, kept competing.
Kentucky countered with clutch plays.
The Commodores (10-15 and 4-9) closed within 58-55. More than five minutes remained. Poythress eased anxieties by dunking over Shelby Moats while being fouled.
After Vandy got within 61-59, Julius Mays hit a three-pointer from the right side.
The competition boiled over with 3:01 left. After a rebound tussle left Henderson on the floor, Harrow found himself standing over the Vandy big man. Vandy players seemed to believe Harrow needed to move away. His lingering led to a mild confrontation under the Commodores' offensive basket. Stallings rushed off the bench and shouted for his players to retreat. The referees ejected Kevin Bright and Carter Josephs for leaving the bench.
A three-pointer by Kyle Fuller made it a one-possession game (68-65) with 1:09 left.
Archie Goodwin, who chipped in 16 points, hit two free throws with 58.7 seconds left to help hold off Vandy.
So did back-to-back blocks by Cauley-Stein. He blocked Fuller and Kedren Johnson 9 seconds apart before grabbing Johnson's missed three with 17 seconds left and drawing a foul.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.comJerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com