Date story published: Monday, February 26, 2007
NASHVILLE -- In love, perhaps, the first cut is the deepest. In college basketball, that seventh cut -- especially when it comes in a late February game freighted with post-season implications -- wounds clear to a team's heart.
After yet another series of malfunctions at crunch time led to a 67-65 loss at Vanderbilt yesterday, Kentucky did not try to hide the pain.
"Toughest loss of the year, I have to say...," said senior forward Bobby Perry, who equaled a season high of 18 points. "To come down here and give the game away like this, it's a very tough loss."
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Alas, the Cats had plenty of tough losses to choose from. Six times earlier this season, UK lost winnable games in the final minutes. This one was the fourth in the last two weeks: Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and now Vandy.
UK could have, by giving Vandy its first league loss at home, taken sole possession of second place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and gotten control of the East's only available first-round bye in next week's SEC Tournament. There was also a matter of pride to be gained in finally beating a ranked team (Vandy came in at No. 17).
But after never trailing (and leading by as much as 10 with less than 14 minutes remaining), the game evolved into a test of execution and playmaking in the final two minutes. Once more the Cats made "two-minute warning" a basketball term.
"What basketball's all about: finding a way to get it done," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "They showed the toughness they have and the execution they have, and the execution we don't in clutch situations. You have to make plays, and when you don't, you're going to get beat."
Vandy, which took second place in the East at 9-5 and improved to 19-9 overall, took its first lead with 25.1 seconds left. Cat killer Derrick Byars, who improved his career record against UK to 5-0, made one free throw with 29.6 seconds left to bring the Commodores within one, 65-64. He missed the second, but the rebound came back to him.
Byars, who hit a clutch leaner on the break in Rupp Arena last season to beat Kentucky, struck again. He rose and lifted a floater over Randolph Morris' outstretched hand that nestled softly in the basket. It put Vandy ahead 66-65.
"The biggest play of the game," said Byars, who scored 21 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. "I missed a free throw and Dan Cage stuck his nose in there and tapped it out to me. I was fortunate to get the ball back. I wanted to make a quick shot at it. I saw Randolph down there. He blocked my shot earlier in the second half so I just wanted to get it up with good touch and it went in."
Whatever UK's failures in the clutch, and the Cats sandwiched some bloopers around Byars' shot, Perry gave credit where credit was due.
"When you're (mentioned) as a SEC Player of the Year candidate, you expect that from a player like that," Perry said. "And he's been doing it all year. It's nothing new."
Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings called it an "unbelievable shot," then immediately contradicted himself.
"It's what he's been doing for us," Stallings said. "It's kind of what he does."
Kentucky, which fell to 19-9 overall and tied for third in the East with Tennessee and Georgia at 8-6, also reverted to form.
The chance to regain the lead literally slipped away when Joe Crawford lost his footing as Sheray Thomas tried to pass him the ball. That marked the fourth turnover involving a UK senior or junior in the final five minutes.
"We've got to get guys to understand the value of the basketball," Smith said. "That's something we've had trouble with all year long. The same type of turnovers and it's happening to veteran players."
Shan Foster, who scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half, made one free throw with 9.7 seconds left to set the final score. That gave UK an opening to tie it with a two-pointer or win it with a three.
The Cats went for the tie. But Ramel Bradley, whose failings in the clutch are well-chronicled, dribbled into the lane under heavy pressure. He appeared to get bumped off stride before trying a contested fadeaway shot that bounced off the rim. Before Thomas could get up a putback attempt, the horn sounded.
"One of the problems we've had is trying to put the ball in a guy's hand who can execute under duress when time and score (pressure looms) and the shot clock is winding down," Smith said. "We have to find the right guy, find somebody who can do that."
Vandy had two. Byars and Foster scored 35 of Vandy's 44 second-half points.
Smith punctuated his post-game news conference by seeming to confess his doubt at such moments. When asked about changes he could make to turn Kentucky into a clutch team, the UK coach defended his system.
"We've won in the past doing it this way," he said. "It's just a matter of personnel."