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CATS' 'D' M.I.A.

Date story published: Sunday, February 12, 2006

NASHVILLE -- Vanderbilt made a season-high 58.8 percent of its shots in beating Kentucky 84-81 yesterday.

When asked how such accuracy played upon his mind, UK guard Ramel Bradley went elemental in his response. "I mean, where's the defense?" he said. "Where was the good contest (of shots)? The good communication? Talking? Toughness?"

Not in Memorial Gym. Vandy shot better than any UK opponent in 12 years. Or since Syracuse made 60 percent of its shots (36 of 60) in beating the Cats 93-85 on Feb. 12, 1994.

Yet when absolutely, positively necessary, Kentucky showed it can play harassing, tenacious defense. That came with Vandy ahead 82-72 and only 90 seconds left. In that time, UK twice got within three points of the Commodores.

Vandy, which had made a habit of losing close games (four losses by a total of 13 points since Jan. 18), almost gave Kentucky the victory. But UK couldn't take it. Fouled intentionally, Rajon Rondo missed two free throws with 24.7 seconds left. Then, on the ensuing possession, Rondo and Bradley missed three-point heaves.

"That's been our M.O.," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "I think it's a matter of when desperation sets in."

Kentucky, which got swept by Vandy for the first time since 1974, fell to 15-9 overall and 5-5 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter marked the first time since 1989-90 that UK was at .500 in the league after 10 games.

UK's third straight loss featured a universal trait of struggling teams: Fix one leak, then lament water seeping in from another crack in the boat.

Against Vandy, Kentucky moved the ball better on offense and went to its strength inside. Alas, Randolph Morris' foul trouble nullified the benefit.

But UK's defense, the program's calling card under Smith, generously gave way. Vandy had averaged 67.6 points in league play until scoring the second-most points of the season against Kentucky.

"We seem to get one thing right, which was the way we played offense," Smith said. "But we really didn't play defense on the three (nine of 14) or backcuts."

Smith then cited a statistic: Nine of Vandy's 12 second-half baskets were layups or dunks.

"You know, there's not much you can say," he said. "Besides, 'Fellas, what's going on? Let's go back and re-work it.'

"It's all predicated on giving that effort. Defense is all about giving second effort, contesting shots, moving your feet. To play defense, you have to have desire and heart."

UK belatedly showed those qualities down the stretch. Behind much of the game, the Cats trailed 82-72 when Vandy point guard Alex Gordon made two free throws with 1:28 left.

Vandy began trading UK layups for time off the clock. One problem: UK forced a five-second call, and then Rondo deflected an inbounds pass that landed in the hands of UK's Joe Crawford. Patrick Sparks swished a three-pointer and suddenly Vandy led only 82-79 with 1:06 left.

Game on.

"We just want to win, man," a subdued Ravi Moss said of the motivation that spurred Kentucky's comeback. "That's all it is. We don't want interviews like this, where everybody asks us why. We want interviews where everybody's happy."

That appeared likely when Rondo poked the ball from Gordon and the Vandy player reached out and grabbed Rondo to prevent a breakaway. The intentional foul gave UK two free throws and the ensuing possession with 24.7 seconds left to overcome an 84-81 deficit.

But Rondo, a 47.6-percent free-thrower in league play coming into the game, barely got the first shot to reach the front of the rim. The second bounced off the back of the rim.

Vandy called time to plot a defense on the ensuing possession. UK hoped to free leading scorers Sparks (17 points) or Bradley (14 points) for a three-pointer. Or get the ball to Morris for a quick score inside.

Instead, Sparks held the ball, presumably waiting for one of the options to appear, then passed to Rondo outside the top of the key. Rondo, a career 29.3 percent three-point shooter, missed from 23 feet.

When asked about the potential five-point trip downcourt, Smith interrupted when the questioner said, "You came up ... "

The UK coach completed the thought. "Empty," he said. "Nothing. It doesn't give you many options when you miss two free throws. Now they know you're going for three. Or you have to throw it inside. ...We didn't even throw it to (Morris).

"You know, the vision is not there. The decision-making is not there. You've got to see it. You've got to visualize it. And you've got to make the play. Either it's a want-to or (his voice trailed off)."

Kentucky got one last chance. A scramble to rebound Rondo's miss took the ball out of bounds off Vandy with 2.1 seconds left.

UK wanted Sparks to shoot, Moss said. But Vandy defended Sparks. "We had to kind of ad lib," Moss said.

Bradley missed badly from the left corner at the buzzer.

"I shot it trying to draw a foul," he said. "I didn't bait him enough. I just had to throw it up."

When assessing this loss, Bradley did not focus on the squandered chances in the final 30 seconds.

"We shouldn't have been in that predicament in the first place," he said.

Blame the defense.