Date story published: Thursday, February 14, 2002
Not even a home victory over old reliable, zip-for-Rupp Arena Vanderbilt, comes easy for Kentucky this season.
Oh, Kentucky beat Vandy. The 67-59 victory extended UK's winning streak over the Commodores to 18 games, matching the fifth longest string of victories dynastic Kentucky has enjoyed against a Southeastern Conference school.
Vandy, the only league team without a single victory over the Cats in Rupp Arena, fell to 0-25 here.
Yet this victory was not the seamless display of -- cliche alert -- killer instinct Kentucky has been seeking throughout this roller-coaster ride of a season.
This time UK Coach Tubby Smith blamed poor shooting. The Cats shot 39.2 percent, their third-worst accuracy of the season.
"Obviously, you can see the problem: putting points on the board," Smith said. "It took us playing good defense to put this one out."
Kentucky's defense limited Vandy to even worse shooting -- 36.2 percent, the Commodores' second-worst accuracy this season.
Defense helped the Cats prevail in a game that made the term "offensive basketball" a double-entendre.
"Everything's not glorious, that's for sure," reserve guard J.P. Blevins acknowledged. "We're not blowing people out."
Still, UK improved to 17-6 overall and 7-4 in the SEC. The latter left the Cats a game behind Florida in the Eastern Division race going into Saturday's high-stakes showdown at third-place Georgia.
Vandy, which hasn't beaten Kentucky in Lexington since 1974, fell to 14-10 overall and 4-7 in the SEC.
Keith Bogans, who bounced back from Saturday's benching at LSU, gave UK its largest lead. His three-pointer put the Cats ahead 44-30 with 15:24 left.
But UK made only three more shots the rest of the game.
"After people scout you, they see where your weaknesses are," Smith said. "And they take your strengths away."
Vandy concentrated a triangle-and-two defense at UK's leading scorer, Tayshaun Prince, and Bogans.
"That left Erik (Daniels) and Cliff (Hawkins) wide open," Smith said. "And they missed a bunch of shots."
Daniels (0-for-4) and Hawkins (0-for-3) did not take being left open as an insult.
"It really doesn't bother me," Daniels said. "I'll keep shooting. I have confidence in my shot."
He said he could not explain why he was missing against Vandy. "I guess I was not concentrating," he said.
Hawkins noted his point guard responsibilities, which make scoring less of a priority.
"I caught myself not ready to shoot the ball, not expecting it," he said. "When you're not ready to shoot, you're not going to make it."
But, Hawkins noted, he should not take being left open personally.
"You can't feed into what the other team's doing," he said. "You have to do what your coach wants. You can't just shoot because you're open."
Kentucky came into the game intending to use full-court pressing and trapping to speed up Vandy's deliberate offense.
And an effective press could create easy scoring opportunities off turnovers.
"We're not getting many transition baskets," Smith said. "That's our biggest problem."
Ironically, a transition basket loomed large.
With the UK lead down to 52-46, Gerald Fitch intercepted Russell Lakey's pass and sped to a breakaway layup that eased the growing tension.
Vandy got as close as 56-52 when Chuck Moore hit a three-pointer with 2:59 left.
"Our whole game plan was just to stay close at the end and try to see if we could pull it out," Moore said. "We kept our poise at the end. By that point in the game, you're not nervous.
"Kentucky just came up with more big plays down the stretch than we did."
Kentucky pulled away with free-throw shooting. After making only 12 of its first 20 free throws, UK hit 11 of 12 in the final 3:50.
Although Vandy's previous losses in Rupp Arena had been by an average of 18.5 points, Coach Kevin Stallings took little consolation in keeping it close.
"In some ways, this was some progress," he said. "But we are looking for wins, not progress.
"Kentucky has another gear they can go to when they need to. One thing you encounter when you come here is an expectation to win. They believe they are going to win and they usually do."
And even at home against Vandy, Kentucky can expect to struggle to its victory.