Date story published: Thursday, January 23, 1997
CINCINNATI - There hadn't been this much excitement about a Kentucky victory over Vanderbilt since last football season.
But Derek Anderson's season-ending knee injury last weekend changed UK basketball's perspective. So a crowd of 17,121 in Riverfront Coliseum lustily cheered Kentucky's 58-46 victory over a Vanderbilt team that lost by 10 points to dreadful Tennessee two weeks ago.
UK Coach Rick Pitino found the victory exhilarating. "This game pleased me more than any game this season because of the way we got after it, the way we got on the floor," he said. "We know our backs are to the wall, and we know there's only one way we can win any basketball game against any opponent. We have to scratch and claw the entire night. The days of the 20- or 30-point blowouts for Kentucky will not be there, tournament or regular season. We have to earn it."
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While no individual player filled Anderson's do-everything role, heralded sophomore Ron Mercer achieved an Anderson-like statistical line: 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
"I think that's the first time since he's been here that he's dived after the ball," point guard Anthony Epps said. "Something like that can really get a team going when somebody like Ron Mercer takes his tuxedo off and starts diving for the ball."
Mercer credited necessity for spurring his increased activity. "I guess I felt like I had to go out and do more things since we didn't have Derek," he said. "That makes me play a lot better. I have to do certain things for my team."
UK scrapped the inside-first philosophy on offense and let fly against Vandy. The Cats shot 32 three-pointers, two shy of a season high and just four shy of their total in the last three games combined.
Allen Edwards and Scott Padgett, who led UK with 16 points each, set career highs in three-point baskets. Edwards, who started in Anderson's small-forward position, made four, or one more than he'd made in five previous Southeastern Conference games. Padgett three. Mercer made three after having hit only one of 15 three-point shots against SEC teams this season.
With Anderson active in the season's first 18 games, only 27.9 percent of Kentucky's shots came from beyond the three-point line. But more than half the Cats' shots against Vandy were treys. UK's 17 three-point shots in the first half topped UK's total in 10 previous games.
"That was more reflective of the way they played zone about every possession of the game," Pitino said of the treys. Asked if he expected more opponents to play zone defense, the UK coach said, "I hope so because it gives us more threes. If we can get that many threes, I like it with the present situation of our team."
While the offensive attack changed drastically, the defense remained constant. The Cats without Anderson played defense like they did with him: tenaciously. Vandy, which ranked eighth in shooting in SEC games (41.1 percent), succumbed. The Commodores made just 34 percent of their shots in scoring a season-low number of points.
"The effort tonight was extraordinary," Pitino said. "We've played the last three games like we've not eaten in seven days, defensively. They think the offense will come. But it starts with defense. If we keep playing defense like this, we may take some lumps but we'll be a good basketball team."
Kentucky improved to 17-2 overall, 5-1 in the SEC and 1-0 in the post-Anderson portion of the season. Vandy slipped to 11-6 overall, 3-3 in the SEC and 2-5 away from its Memorial Gymnasium.
Without Anderson, Kentucky's pressure never got Vandy to crumble. Vandy committed only 13 turnovers, a season low for a UK opponent.
The result was a competitive first half that saw neither team take control. UK led much of the half, but never by more than seven points and by a score of 27-21 at halftime.
That represented another adjustment to the post-Anderson era. Kentucky led by at least 10 points in the first half of all but one of its previous 18 games this season. Only Mississippi, the team that got to face a subpar Anderson, managed to stay within 10 points in the first 20 minutes against the Cats.
Kentucky continued the three-point barrage early in the second half. UK's first five shots came from beyond the line. The first three went in. The second - by Edwards - gave the Cats their first double-digit lead, 33-21, with 17:56 left.
UK extended its lead to as much as 47-25 midway through the second half.
When the Cats stumbled down the stretch, Vandy closed to within 56-46 and had the ball with almost three minutes left.
But the Commodores got no closer.
"We lost the eye of the tiger a little bit," Pitino said.