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By Kentucky's lofty standard lately, yesterday's 82-67 victory over Vanderbilt qualified as high drama.

The last five opponents fell by an average of 25 points.

Against Vandy, the Cats did not take the lead for good until late in the first half. But even then, guard Dale Brown sensed another comfortable victory.

"Fatigue was setting in," UK's top defender said. "Their guys didn't want to bring the ball upcourt. Then I knew we'd get them."

Make no mistake, Vandy lived up to its newfound reputation as a gritty road team. The Commodores began each half determined to win this showdown for first place in the Southeastern Conference.

As each half wore on, the Commodores' efficiency slipped.

During the first five minutes of each half, Vandy shot a combined 9-for- 12. But the Commodores made only 11 of 49 shots the rest of the game.

Overall, UK's withering defensive pressure limited the league's best shooting team (51.4 percent) to a season-low 32.8 percent accuracy.

The victory made amends for Kentucky's 101-86 loss last month at Vandy, the only blemish on UK's record. The Cats improved to 17-1 overall and 8-1 in the SEC. Vandy fell to 17-4 and 7-2.

"Their defense had a lot to do with it," Vandy Coach Eddie Fogler said. "They had a better defensive effort today. They're getting better."

A comparison of numbers showed dramatic improvement since Nashville. Vandy made 63.3 percent of its shots that January night.

"Everybody on the perimeter was switching properly, denying properly and pressing the basketball," UK Coach Rick Pitino said of the rematch. "In a three- or four-year period, we couldn't have played any worse than we did at Vanderbilt."

The Cats focused particular defensive attention on Vandy's top scorer, Duke transfer Billy McCaffrey. He strained for a game-high 19 points and four assists, down from the picturesque 22 points and school-record 14 assists against UK last month.

"We wanted him to work hard," Pitino said. "We wanted him to take bad shots. We wanted him to take every shot off-balance. We wanted to wear him out and make him a fatigued man."

Vandy was fresh in more ways than one early on. McCaffrey and another transfer, center Chris Lawson, got the Commodores off well. They scored Vandy's first 12 points and 14 of the first 15.

Vandy led by as many as six points early and still held a 21-17 lead when Lawson taunted UK star Jamal Mashburn.

After blocking Mashburn's leaner out of bounds, Lawson was heard to shout, 'Don't bring that (bleep) in here."

Mashburn's reply was inaudible to ears on press row. "You'd have to bleep it out," he said afterward.

"I guess he was excited about his first SEC block," Mashburn said, smiling, of the burly Lawson.

Actually, it was Lawson's sixth block in league play, though it went unrecorded on the official box score.

Mashburn, who led UK with 17 points, dismissed the suggestion the taunt ignited either himself or UK.

Perhaps coincidentally, the Cats scored the next 11 points to take the lead for good at 28-21.

Vandy scored only one basket in the final 9:32 of the half. The Commodores' frustration became most noticeable when McCaffrey, usually a cool customer, got breathing room by blatantly pushing off UK point guard Travis Ford.

"He wanted so badly to do what he could, he just got speeded up," guard Ronnie McMahan said of McCaffrey. "Their press is like that. They make you do faster things. Everybody did something out of character."

Vandy hung tough in the second half. But the fatigue factor and three- point shooting ruled out a miracle comeback.

"Every time we seemed to make a run, they made a three-pointer," Fogler said. "That's what hurt us. We couldn't get over the hump."

UK made seven three-pointers in each half. Vandy attempted only nine treys in the game.

"A major stat," Pitino said.

The Commodores got no closer than six in the second half.

With the lead down to 58-50, Brown made a three-pointer.

Lead down to 61-52: UK freshman Tony Delk made a three-pointer.

Kentucky snuffed out Vandy's flickering chances a minute later. With the lead 64-54, Vandy's Bruce Elder took off for a fast-break layup.

Ford made Elder change direction near the basket. The delay gave Andre Riddick time to get to the basket and leap so high his knees appeared to touch the bottom of the backboard. The crowd greeted the block, one of three for Riddick, with deafening cheers.

"Andre gave us an unbelievable lift," Pitino said. "It was not just a block, but a spectacular block. It brought us to life."

Ford's three-pointer at the other end put Vandy asleep, 67-54 with 9:12 left.

Vandy got no closer than 10 thereafter.