Date story published: Thursday, March 6, 2003
Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch rose for a dunk in traffic. Kentucky's crowd rose in anticipation of a statement slam.
One problem: Fitch clanked his stylish left-handed throw-down off the back of the rim. Teammate Antwain Barbour convulsed in laughter on the bench. To Barbour's right, Cliff Hawkins stretched a warm-up jacket over his mouth to hide the merriment his eyes betrayed.
Yes, Kentucky's 106-44 victory over Vanderbilt last night was a laugher. And UK fans haven't laughed over such a one-sided victory over Vandy since 1947 (98-29) or over a conference opponent since 1956 (143-66 over Georgia) or over anyone else since 1995 (96-32 over Morehead State).
Despite his embarrassing miss, Fitch stretched the timetable to a lifetime. "This was the 'funnest' game I ever played," he said.
With the outcome never in doubt, the Cats and a happy Rupp Arena crowd of 23,061 proceeded to blur the line between pre-game Senior Night celebration and college basketball competition.
Kentucky extended the nation's longest winning streak to 19 games and moved within one game of becoming only the second team since 1956 to go through a Southeastern Conference schedule undefeated. The Cats, 25-3 overall, will attempt to complete a historic 16-0 SEC sweep at No. 3 Florida on Saturday.
Vandy, which lost its eighth straight, moved within one game of historic futility. A loss against Tennessee on Saturday will give the Vandy program its worst SEC record since the 1945-46 season: 3-13. The Commodores fell to 10-16 overall.
"Our team was obviously overwhelmed both physically and mentally from the beginning," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "Unfortunately, it only continued to get worse."
UK established a double-digit lead inside the first four minutes, stretched the cushion to 20 points before the 10-minute mark and then settled in for some fun.
UK Coach Tubby Smith's only worry: there might be too much fun.
"When you're struggling like they're struggling and we hit everything, you're sort of melancholy," he said. "You want to be good sports."
Smith emptied his bench and 13 Cats scored. Freshman Brandon Stockton entered the game with 8:12 left in the first half. That marked the earliest he had gotten in an SEC game. His seven minutes more than doubled his previous high against an SEC team of three at Arkansas.
Any doubt about this game's lack of competitive tension vanished when Erik Daniels swished back-to-back three-point shots at the midway point of the first half. Those shots, which put UK up 34-13, matched his season's total (2-for-7) and gave the lanky forward his first baskets from beyond the arc since he hit a trey in the first South Carolina game on Jan. 11.
"Anytime he's knocking down jump shots, things might get out of hand," teammate Marquis Estill said.
Daniels, who equalled a career-high 20 points, credited the "lucky" T-shirt he wore under his jersey. He first wore the T-shirt (to protect an infected gland in his right armpit) in scoring 20 points at Mississippi earlier this season.
"I'm not really a superstitious person," he said, "but I decided to go back to the T-shirt. I played great with it and kind of bad without it, so I think I'll keep it and see how it goes."
UK led by as much as 23 points twice in the first half before settling for a 48-29 lead at intermission.
There was no letup in the second half as Kentucky extended its lead to 31 points in barely four minutes after intermission. Estill's first three-pointer of the season established that lead with 15:57 left.
"We were outworked, outmanned and overwhelmed," Stallings said. "I was very disappointed in how we responded to the fight taken to us. I don't ever believe in throwing in the towel. But for the first time this year, I thought our players played with a lack of intensity and emotion and fight."
Kentucky had plenty of each. So much so that Fitch saw the game over before halftime. Or long before his missed dunk early in the second half.
"I think we took their confidence early in the game," Fitch said. "They kept fighting back and then they gave up."