Date story published: Sunday, January 11, 2004
Consistency marked Kentucky's 75-63 victory over Vanderbilt last night.
The consistency was not Vanderbilt's continuing distinction as the only Southeastern Conference program never to beat UK in Rupp Arena. The Commodores' futility reached 0-27 and counting.
UK's evergreen (everblue?) ability to defend and make the big play at an opportune moment made this a successful SEC opener.
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Vanderbilt, 12-1 overall and 1-1 in the league, "exorcised some demons," as Coach Kevin Stallings put it, by competing with Kentucky. The Commodores erased the memory of last season's 62-point rout here by closing within two of the Cats at the 5:52 mark.
But this merely set the stage for a veteran Kentucky team to win its 20th straight game against a league rival.
"They believe they're going to win," Stallings said of the Cats. "They expect to win. You have to play a great game to come here and win. And we didn't play a great game."
The dramatic moment came with UK ahead 63-57 with four minutes left.
Vandy star forward Matt Freije, who suffered through a 6-for-15 shooting night, found himself having to dribble the ball upcourt against UK's pressure defense.
"Everybody was denying the pass," said Chuck Hayes, the player defending Freije. "He wanted to pass. But he had to dribble."
Like a shark after chum, point guard Cliff Hawkins seized on the opportunity. He separated the dribble from Freije in front of the scorer's table and saved the ball to Hayes.
A Hayes pass found Gerald Fitch, who swished a three-pointer from the left corner.
Typically, Fitch dismissed the clutch jumper as merely doing his job. But he acknowledged the psychological blow it delivered.
"Going back to the Louisville game when (Francisco) Garcia hit the three on us," Fitch said. "You kind of felt that dagger. You felt it in the stomach."
After former Scott County star Scott Hundley missed a jumper, Kentucky sealed it in memorable fashion. Hawkins hung in the air while being bodied by Jason Holwerda on the fast break. Despite the contact, Hawkins extended his left arm and flung the ball off the glass and in.
The basket put UK ahead 68-57 with 3:22 left. It pointed the way to a 10th victory in 11 games and a 1-0 start in the SEC.
"Hawkins is a great defensive player," Stallings said of the UK point guard, who matched a season high with four steals. "I don't think there's any question of that. He's one of the few guys who is not a shot-blocker who can impact a game very, very significantly on the defensive end."
Vanderbilt, which came into the game shooting 48.6 percent, made only 41 percent of its shots against UK.
Freije, who led the Commodores with an 18.8 ppg average, got off only one shot in the first half -- an air-ball three-pointer -- and didn't score until he grabbed a loose ball with his back to the basket and made a two-handed layup off the glass with 12:04 left.
"I was upset that he scored," said Erik Daniels, the UK defender on Freije much of the game. "I didn't want him to score the entire game."
UK threw Freije off early by twice taking charges on his drives.
"We scouted him very well," Daniels said. "We knew he likes to catch and shoot. He's not very good putting it on the floor."
Stallings downplayed the significance of the charges. "Two charges will throw some people off," the Vandy coach said. "He's going to come back and keep playing."
But Freije admitted an adverse effect. "That kind of messed me up in the first half," he said.
To its credit, Vandy hung in there. Helped by UK turnovers (a whopping 14 in the first half and 23 for the game), the Commodores got themselves in position to win against other SEC teams in other SEC venues.
"But we showed a lot of moxie and a lot of grit," UK Coach Tubby Smith said, "to not fold even when things were not going as we expected or hoped."