NASHVILLE — For the longest time, Kentucky's 60-58 victory at Vanderbilt Thursday night looked like an example of reload versus rebuild.
UK's latest group of heralded freshmen dominated a Vandy team starting over this season without its six leading scorers from a year ago.
Kentucky never trailed in the first 33 minutes and led by as much as 16 points three times in the second half.
Then — surprise — it was time to hit the rewind button.
Kentucky missed 12 straight shots, more than one with the look of anxiety. Vandy's switch to a zone defense in the second half looked like gold.
"We got tentative," UK Coach John Calipari said.
Vandy scored 18 straight points, the final two a dunk by sophomore Sheldon Jeter. That gave the Commodores their first lead, 49-47, with 6:10 left.
"Coach has been saying the SEC is not a joke," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who acknowledged that UK's first-half dominance defied the coach's warning. "Whoa, this is not what coach was saying," he said of UK's control of the first half.
The second half proved Calipari correct.
"Dang," Cauley-Stein said he thought. "We've got to pull this out."
A three-pointer by Ryan Harrow — UK's only basket in a stretch of almost 12 minutes — put the Cats ahead 51-49.
With the game tied at 54-54, Kyle Wiltjer hit a shot from the elbow. His only basket put Kentucky ahead 56-54 with 1:57 left.
A controversial play clinched it. After UK called time with 25.5 seconds left on the game clock and eight seconds on the shot clock, Nerlens Noel picked up a loose ball. He scored, but Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings rushed to near mid-court, tapping his bald head repeatedly to signal that the shot clock expired.
Television replays suggested Stallings was correct. But the basket counted, putting UK ahead 60-55 with 17.3 seconds left.
"Not reviewable," Stallings said. "That's what they told me. It's not reviewable. The officials got together and said, it's not reviewable. ...
"Obviously, by my reaction, you could tell what I thought."
When asked if Noel got the shot off in time, Calipari jokingly said, "It was good all the way." Then he added with a shrug, "I have no idea."
The lead was not safe. After Kedren Johnson made a three-pointer, Kentucky struggled to inbounds. Archie Goodwin called time when he couldn't get the ball in. Then Kyle Fuller deflected the inbounds off Julius Mays.
Vandy wanted Rod Odom to take the game winner.
"Mays played it really well," Johnson said of how the UK defender would not let Odom get the shot off.
Johnson, who led Vandy with 18 points, missed a three-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer.
"After I let it go, I knew it was a couple inches off to the right," Johnson said.
Kentucky improved to 10-4 overall. Harrow led UK with 16 points. Noel added 13 and Goodwin 12.
Vandy fell to 6-7. That meant the Commodores were under .500 after 13 games for the first time since the 1977-78 season.
Kentucky held a 35-24 halftime lead, which seemed surprisingly close given UK's first-half dominance.
With Vandy missing 19 of its first 24 shots, Kentucky led by as many as 15 points on three occasions. Often, it looked easy. As when Vandy left Cauley-Stein alone near the basket for a layup. Or when Noel drove by someone named Shelby Moats easy as you please for another layup. Or when Goodwin's fake right caused Odom, one of Vandy's few veterans, to stumble toward the baseline. That left an open path to the basket for Goodwin.
It wasn't all highlight material. Goodwin came up with a hustle play sure to please Calipari. He outfought two Vandy players to tap an offensive rebound free. Then Goodwin saved the ball to Noel for a driving dunk.
Vandy closed relatively fast. After missing their first 10 three-point shots, the Commodores got a trey from Johnson with 1:22 left. "The streak continues!" the public address announce exclaimed. By making a three-pointer in an 845th game, Vandy remained with UNLV and Princeton as the only programs to make a shot from beyond the arc in every game since the rule went into effect in 1986-87.
A three-pointer by Odom with 36 seconds left set the halftime score.
Kentucky extended its lead to 43-27 early in the second half. After Vandy sophomore Josh Henderson missed a layup, UK used a Goodwin free throw to get 16 points ahead for the first time.
With the lead at 47-31, Kentucky missed its next nine shots.
"They just started playing tougher than we were," Harrow said of Vandy's rally.
All the work in Camp Cal to get tougher failed to bear fruit.
"We kind of reverted back," Cauley-Stein said. "That was the big emphasis the last month and a half."
Ultimately, Kentucky made enough big plays to win.
Kentucky hopes to finish its planned renovation of Commonwealth Stadium by the fall of 2015, Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart said Thursday night.
UK intends to add 16 to 20 luxury suites, create about 2,000 club seats, upgrade restrooms and concessions, plus build a multi-purpose room in stages over the next two football off-seasons, Barnhart said.
The next step will be to get approval for the project from UK's Board of Trustees, he said. The project got a boost earlier Thursday when Gov. Steve Beshear and legislative leaders voiced their support.
Barnhart downplayed the chances of a ticket price increase in 2013.
"Our goal for next year is just to get fans back in the stands," he said.