Date story published: Saturday, March 15, 2003
NEW ORLEANS -- It's hard to annihilate a team three times in a season. Well, not that hard.
Kentucky completed a trifecta trampling of Vanderbilt last night with an 81-63 victory. By Kentucky-Vandy standards this season, it was a nail-biter.
Despite the distraction of a disciplinary action against Gerald Fitch and the low-wattage intensity of facing Vandy again, Kentucky easily advanced to today's semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
UK Coach Tubby Smith and Fitch downplayed the significance of removing the junior guard from the starting lineup for the first time this season. Fitch entered the game barely four minutes after tipoff. But foul trouble limited him to 12 minutes and seven points, his lowest scoring total since the first South Carolina game on Jan. 11.
"Gerald and I had a little incident," Smith said. "We had to get that corrected and it's been corrected."
Fitch will start in today's semifinal game against Auburn. The Tigers beat Tennessee 66-53 in last night's final game.
The mind-numbing prospect of a third game against Vandy, which UK beat by 62 points last week, proved a bigger obstacle.
"It was kind of a distraction to beat a team by as much as we did," Fitch said. "After 10 minutes or so, we got ourselves together."
UK, which extended the nation's longest active winning streak to 21 games, entered the game with a ho-hum attitude. Combined with foul trouble and Vandy's intention of salvaging its pride, that made for a competitive first half.
Freshman Mario Moore, whose 25 points helped beat Alabama in the first round, sparked Vandy in the first half. He scored 11 of the Commodores' first 26 points. During the time, Vandy never trailed and led by as much as nine points.
"I wasn't really worried," UK forward Chuck Hayes said. "I knew we were going to come around and play our defense."
Smith's substitutions made it clear he needed to find a spark. He used the first television timeout (the 15:28 mark) to insert Fitch into the game. Seven seconds later, he sat the rest of the starters. Freshman Kelenna Azubuike and Bernard Cote joined Jules Camara and Antwain Barbour as new Cats in the game.
The moves failed to ignite Kentucky. When an 11-7 deficit grew to 17-8, Smith sent the starters back to the scorer's table.
Still the starters got the message. UK outscored Vandy 28-11 the rest of the half. In that span, UK limited Vandy to 3-for-17 shooting.
"They're about as good defensively as any team I've seen in my years in college basketball," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said. "I've been to three Final Fours (as a Kansas assistant) and played against some awfully good teams in my coaching career. But I don't believe I've seen a team play defense as well as Kentucky."
Kentucky took its first lead on a play that suggested UK-Vandy III would be a return to uncompetitive basketball. Camara stole a pass and waltzed to a fast-break dunk. Vandy freshman Julian Terrell made a half-hearted effort to catch up to the UK player and contest the shot.
Camara's dunk put UK ahead 28-26 with 3:58 left. It was part of a 14-2 Kentucky run to end the half.
Freshman Brandon Stockton's three-pointer, only his fifth this season, capped the late rally and gave the Cats a 36-28 halftime lead.
Given that Kentucky limited Vandy to four and seven baskets in the second halves of the regular-season games, the prospect of a Vandy comeback seemed dim.
On cue, Kentucky outscored Vandy 27-9 in the first 10 minutes of the second half. The Cats did it with inside power, getting their first eight baskets and nine of the first 10 of the half from inside the paint.
That run put Kentucky ahead 63-37 with 10 minutes left. It also gave the third UK-Vandy game a common thread in this series: an eye-catching UK run. This time it was 55-20 going back to Vandy's largest lead of the game: 17-8.
Although Vandy never came close to beating Kentucky, Stallings suggested he knew the formula.
"In order to beat Kentucky -- and I say this not having much experience at doing so -- is you have to have one of two things or maybe both," the Vandy coach said. "A great post player who commands double teams to expose their defense. Or break them down off the dribble. No one in the league has shown they have enough of either one of those to beat them."
Certainly not Vandy.