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CATS SURVIVE A SCARE

Date story published: Sunday, January 28, 2001

In a seemingly must-win situation, Kentucky won the way it seemingly must this season -- after first losing a seemingly comfortable lead.

After almost all of a 20-point second-half lead evaporated, Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 86-75 last night.

Even by Kentucky standards, which regularly feature a hard-charging opponent, Vandy's rally was noteworthy. It included a four-point play followed 42 seconds later by a five-point possession.

"I've seen a lot in my day," said UK point guard Saul Smith, whose career-high 18 points helped save this night. "I ain't never seen that one. That's nine points in I bet -- what? -- about 30 seconds. That's amazing."

UK led 49-29 barely four minutes into the second half and held a 15-point cushion with little more than 11 minutes left.

But after a freaky 90-second span, Vandy had closed within 58-56. The lead was gone. The game was on.

Anyone surprised?

"Well, I don't think it's anything unexpected," UK reserve guard J.P. Blevins said. "I thought we played well in spurts. But that's kind of the story all year long. In spurts. Whenever we can get it together for 40 minutes, we're going to be a heck of a team."

Kentucky continued to look like a thrill-seeker intent on setting a world record for roller-coaster rides this season. In snapping a two-game losing streak and improving to 11-7 overall and 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference, the Cats:

* Came out strangely flat.

* Rode inspired play from the bench to that commanding 20-point lead.

* Rebuilt a solid lead after Vandy closed to within two. But after holding a seemingly save 80-67 lead with 90 seconds left, UK saw Vandy get the ball back with the lead down to 80-72. The re-gathering tension eased when Vandy's Matt Freije, who came within one of his career high with 25 points, finally missed a three-point shot after having made four straight in the second half.

"We had a lot of problems, obviously, with Matt Freije," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of the freshman forward's 15 second-half points. "He just went off. He really hurt us. He almost single-handedly brought them back and won the game for them."

Thanks to scrappy play off the bench, Kentucky claimed a 34-27 halftime lead.

The Cats trailed by as many as eight points in the early going. Only one offensive rebound in the game's first seven minutes showed how gentlemanly the Cats played in the early going. "We didn't seem to have our energy," Tubby Smith said.

The tone changed when the UK coach went to his bench. Blevins replaced the Cats' leading scorer, Keith Bogans, with 15:55 left. Marquis Estill, who equaled his career high of 19 points, and Erik Daniels entered the game at the 13:17 mark.

When Marvin Stone and Cliff Hawkins came in with 12 minutes left, the Cats faced their largest deficit: 16-8. UK had made four of 16 shots and been outrebounded 11-6.

Kentucky reeled off 13 straight points en route to outscoring Vanderbilt 22-3 over the next eight minutes.

"It got us a lot of energy in the first half," Tubby Smith said of the substitutes. "Then the guys who started kind of woke up and played better."

Kentucky outscored Vandy 15-2 in the first five minutes of the second half to build the 49-29 lead with 15:52 left.

Four minutes later, the Cats still led 58-43. Then four straight three-pointers fueled a rally that reduced UK's lead to 58-56 with 9:05 left.

"Tonight it was a case of Vanderbilt making threes and us fouling when we shouldn't have fouled," Tubby Smith said of the opposition's charge.

Freshman Jason Parker fouled Freije on a three-point shot from the top of the key. Freije made the trey and free throw to reduce UK's lead to 58-49.

"I don't think I fouled him," Parker said. "I know I didn't foul him. I guess it looked like a foul. I just put my hand up. When he shot the ball, he came into my hand. I have to accept what they call, but I don't understand the refs tonight."

Less than a minute later, Vandy's Chuck Moore hit another trey. While jockeying for rebounding position, Daniels fouled Scott Hundley. The Scott County product hit both ends of the one-and-one to bring the Commodores to within 58-54.

"I was just trying to box out," Daniels said. "He kind of pushed me and they called a foul on me. It was unexpected."

Two free throws by Anthony Williams got Vandy within 58-56 with 9:05 left.

Unlike the game at Alabama, Kentucky stemmed the bleeding. After Tayshaun Prince missed a three-pointer, Bogans went over a Vandy player to snatch the rebound. UK scored on the second-chance opportunity when Prince converted a Saul Smith pass for a dunk.

The dunk brought a roar from the stands and seemed to calm UK. Two straight Vandy turnovers -- the second converted into a three-point play by Gerald Fitch -- also soothed nerves and pointed UK to what's become a routine victory.

The nature of the victory made for a relatively subdued winning locker room.

"We've tried to work on that and work on that, and we keep letting teams back in," said Blevins, who cited UK's immaturity as a cause. "That's concerning because when you go on the road, that lack of maturity will get you beat like it did at Alabama and like it did at Ole Miss."

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