Date story published: Wednesday, January 15, 2003
NASHVILLE -- Kentucky faced, perhaps, a moment of truth at halftime last night.
Riding a wave of confidence created by a victory over then No. 4 Alabama here three nights earlier, Vanderbilt jumped on UK with two feet. No, make that three feet as the Commodores defied their track record by swishing three-pointer after three-pointer.
Kentucky trailed by as much as 14 points in the first half before retreating into intermission behind by eight.
"I challenged them to come out and be men," UK Coach Tubby Smith said.
With apologies to feminists, UK played like a group of hairy-chested men in the second half. The Wildcats held Vanderbilt to four baskets and 16 points after the break in a breathtaking performance that swept the Cats to a 74-52 victory.
Ironically, Kentucky went small to achieve physical dominance. And the Cats abandoned last week's defense of choice, a zone. A man-to-man defense, spearheaded by point guard Cliff Hawkins, suffocated the Commodores.
"We had trouble completing a single pass," Vandy's star forward Matt Freije said. "You can't play basketball 45 feet from the basket."
Repeatedly, UK stole passes and separated Vanderbilt players from the ball. Transition basket after transition basket followed to build a final UK advantage of 31-9 in points off turnovers.
"They just hit us with a big punch and we didn't respond to it," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said. "We didn't respond to their toughness, their pressure, their physicality. They knocked us back on our heels and we never did anything to re-establish that we were the aggressor."
Stallings termed it UK's best half of the season. After outscoring Vandy 46-16, Smith did not disagree.
"Oh yeah," he said. "It's not even close."
Kentucky, 12-3 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference, limited Vanderbilt to 4-for-17 shooting in the second half. Other eye-catching statistics included UK's 12 second-half steals and Vandy's second-half assist-to-turnover ratio of 3 to 13. Yes, the Commodores had more than three times the number of turnovers (13) than baskets (four) in the second half.
UK opened the second half with a lineup that included three guards (Gerald Fitch, Keith Bogans and Hawkins), plus Erik Daniels and Marquis Estill. When Estill picked up two fouls inside the first four minutes, the Cats went even smaller with Chuck Hayes replacing the big man.
"We wanted to bring more pressure," said Smith, who credited Hawkins' defense on Vandy point guard Russell Lakey as key. "Cliff gave us that energy and that point of emphasis by attacking the ball."
Lakey had a season-high six turnovers. But Hawkins said he drew inspiration from a first-half play in which Lakey stole the ball from him.
"I got kind of mad at myself," said Hawkins, whose four steals were one shy of a career high. "We took them out of their offense and they didn't get good looks for three-pointers."
Chuck Hayes, who sat to start the second half, contributed 11 points and five rebounds to put Kentucky in striking position midway through the second half.
Then the toll of Kentucky's pressure began to tell on Vandy down the stretch. Trailing 42-41 with barely 12 minutes left, the Cats outscored Vandy 33-10 the rest of the way.
When a reporter noted that Vanderbilt players hung their heads, Stallings shrugged. "They might have," the Vandy coach said. "My head was hanging, too. You're getting your (butt) kicked, what else are you going to do? Laugh about it?"
Vandy fell to 8-6 overall and 1-2 in the SEC.
Necessity led Kentucky to switch from the zone to man-to-man. "Our backs were to the wall," Smith said. Vandy made seven of its first eight three-point shots, most coming against the zone.
Vanderbilt got off only six three-point shots in the second half, making just one. It came with 2:31 left for the Commodores' final points and reduced UK's lead to 70-52.
"Their defense completely dominated the game and their physicality completely dominated our players," Stallings said. "I'm disappointed when we're soundly outplayed and beaten. It makes you feel exposed and vulnerable. That's why it's important for us to figure out why it happened."
By contrast, Kentucky sensed self-discovery and the path to complete fulfillment in the second half.
"This is what we've been trying to get over to our players," Smith said of UK's dominating defense. "If we defend like we're capable of defending, then we'll have a chance in every game."