Date story published: Sunday, February 23, 1997
NASHVILLE - On the comeback scale, a tickled Rick Pitino rated this one superior to the Don't-Ever-Give-Up miracle at LSU. Presumably it fell just short of the raising of Lazarus. Undoubtedly, it gave new meaning to Vanderbilt's beloved "Memorial Magic."
Encouraged by a sellout crowd armed with specially made glittering gold pompons and inspired by the belief that a victory over No. 3 Kentucky ensured the school's first NCAA Tournament bid since 1993, Vanderbilt roared to a 22-point lead in the first half.
Then, Kentucky, which specializes in improbable rallies when it's not routinely beating the stuffing out of the opposition, proceeded to delay, if not spoil, the Vandy players' expectation of their first ticket to college basketball's big dance. These Comeback Cats gathered themselves late in the first half, then ground down the Commodores en route to an 82-79 victory.
"One of the best victories we've had," Pitino said. "I even rate it better than the 31-point comeback (at LSU four years ago). It's better because they were on top of their game. You had to beat a team that could do no wrong....
"This was as good as it gets. LSU was not a good basketball team. This was a very good basketball team."
Vandy (17-9) rode a six-game winning streak into the game, led 37-15 with 7:27 left in the first half, and 40-18 with just 3:51 till halftime. Ripping repeatedly through Kentucky's vaunted press, the Commodores made 14 of their first 20 shots. The Cats? Four timeouts and just seven baskets made up the bulk of UK's effort as the game evolved to a stunning 22-point spread.
"It was kind of a shock," UK guard Wayne Turner said. "I mean, they just came out and jumped on us early. We came out with our head down and our guard down."
Kentucky struggled against Vandy's bread-and-butter defense, a matchup zone. That the Cats' only free-throw attempts of the first half came with only 5:33 remaining reflected a lack of inside production.
"The first thing I thought of was we're losing our chance to win the (Southeastern) conference in the regular season," said Allen Edwards, who took UK's only two free throws of the half. "The second thing I thought was how mad coach (Pitino) was going to be after the game."
In a series of timeouts, Pitino stressed a "possession-by-possession" comeback.
"If it goes to 30, it's over," he said of the deficit. "So I kept telling them, 'Look, get it to 15 or 14 at halftime. We'll make our adjustments. But if it goes the other way, we're dead."
With timing as perfect as the desperate situation demanded, Kentucky went on a 16-4 run at the end of the half to reduce the deficit to 44-34 at the break. The run began with an Edwards layup off a pass from Turner and an Anthony Epps three-pointer. That marked UK's first back-to-back scoring possessions in more than 14 minutes.
Turner capped the run with a three-pointer that bounced high off the rim and fell through as the buzzer sounded.
"Shooter's touch," said Turner, whose sheepish smile suggested he thought some other term better described the shot. It was only his fourth trey of the season and his first since Dec. 23.
"That was tremendous," Pitino said of the psychological value of Turner's three. "Tremendous."
Turner said it produced a "mind-set where we wanted to rip them apart in the second half."
First, Pitino called another timeout 64 seconds into the second half after Vandy made a three-pointer in transition. "Our backs were to the wall," the UK coach said. "One more three like that (and) that game was over at that point."
Helped by Jared Prickett's three-pointer (only his second since Dec. 14), Kentucky closed in on a tiring Vandy.
"That's why I decided to take it," Prickett said, referring to Turner's first-half trey. "If Wayne was hitting a three, I'll hit a three myself."
Ron Mercer, who led UK with 23 points, gave the Cats their first lead with 11 minutes left when his dunk completed a fast break. With 7:18 left, his only three-pointer of the game gave Kentucky the lead for good, 67-64.
The lead grew to as much as nine points when Vandy summoned the will to make a rally of its own. The Commodores trailed by seven with 27 seconds left. But Drew Maddux's trey with nine seconds left reduced the UK lead to three points. UK threw away the ensuing possession; Mercer's pass to Edwards overshot the target. Vandy sub Atiba Prater outscrapped Edwards for the ball and fed fellow frosh James Strong for a last-second shot. But Strong's hurried shot never got close.
"I couldn't be any more proud," Pitino said, "nor any more tired."