NASHVILLE — With big man Patrick Patterson continuing to rest a sprained ankle, Kentucky fought an uphill battle at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night.
Alas, the hike got steeper as Vandy made UK's leading scorer, Jodie Meeks, fight for every one of his 26 points.
What Coach Billy Gillispie called "nonexistent" offensive execution in the second half brought oxygen debt to a killing climb. Ultimately, despite 40 minutes of willpower, Kentucky fell well short of the summit.
Vanderbilt won 77-64 to drop Kentucky out of a share of first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
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"First thing, that's more like it," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said to begin his post-game news conference. "That's more like the effort and energy I've gotten accustomed to."
Vandy (16-9, 5-6 SEC) focused much of the effort and energy on containing Meeks, the third-leading scorer in the country.
"To look down and see 6-for-21," Stallings said of Meeks' shooting accuracy, "we did our job. He's a great player, the best our league has to offer."
Gillispie defended Meeks' tireless effort.
"The numbers look bad," the UK coach said before adding, "He played his heart out."
He also did it without a break. Meeks played the full 40 minutes.
Freshman Lance Goulbourne scored a career-high 17 points for Vandy. He led a second-half spurt that dropped Kentucky to 18-8 overall and 7-4 in the SEC.
Kentucky dug in for a war of attrition in the first half. There were technical fouls on each team and a bit of Meeks' sharpshooting, and Kentucky fouls piled up high.
But the good news for UK was the score: 30-30.
Meeks had 10 first-half points but, after shooting two technical free throws with 7:44 left, he was held scoreless. The technical was on A.J. Ogilvy, who gave a driving DeAndre Liggins a jolt to the chest. The two-arm shove seemed in retaliation for Liggins pushing off freshman Brad Tinsley — a non-call — as he started the drive.
Other than Meeks' two technical free throws, UK's and the SEC's leading scorer did not score in the final 11:32 of the half.
"He probably missed a couple shots he normally makes," Stallings said. "Sometimes that happens to a great shooter when it's a while between shots."
Vandy made a priority of limiting Meeks' scoring chances in transition. "You can't get him stopped there," Stallings said.
Meeks credited Vandy with a job well done. "I didn't get any run-outs except for the end," he said. "The game was over then."
Yet Kentucky hung tough thanks, in part, to career highs by fan favorite Kevin Galloway (nine points) and A.J. Stewart (11) and a gritty refusal to yield.
Gillispie noted the points, but lamented the lack of rebounding (three for Stewart).
"I really don't need a 6-9 two-guard," he said of Stewart. "I need a 6-9 bruiser."
Vandy outrebounded UK 37-26 (the worst beating on the boards for the Cats this season). The bruiser Gillispie wanted, Patterson, sat on the UK bench a second straight game.
Whether Patterson plays against Tennessee on Saturday, Gillispie could not say. "Day to day," the UK coach said of Patterson's status. "That's all I know, and it wasn't today."
Stallings noted the difference Patterson could have made. "We feel fortunate to beat them," the Vandy coach said. "Obviously, one of the best players in the league didn't play. We acknowledge that."
Tied 30-30 at halftime, Vandy built a 39-30 lead less than three minutes into the second half. Tinsley scored five of the Commodores' first nine points to establish the lead.
Meanwhile, Meeks missed his first shot, making him 3-for-10 to that point.
With the deficit reduced to 45-41, Vanderbilt outscored UK 15-3 inside the next five minutes to take a 60-44 lead.
Vanderbilt took its first double-digit lead when Beal stole the ball from Michael Porter. Porter fouled him to prevent a breakaway layup. Beal's two free throws made it 53-42 with 10:16 left.
"Just took the ball from us," Gillispie said. "Just took our cookies."
Goulbourne scored eight in the run, including two three-pointers. His three-pointer from the right corner made it a 16-point bulge with 7:51 left.
That gave him three three-pointers in the game. Coming into it, Goulbourne had made only three of 13 shots from beyond the arc against SEC teams.
Kentucky made a charge, reducing the 16-point deficit to 62-53 on a Meeks three-pointer. The clock showed 5:31, plenty of time to complete a rally.
But Beal drove pretty-as-you-please to a layup after Vandy ran time off the shot clock. That seemed to signal defeat for Kentucky on a night with Patterson sidelined and Meeks not shooting well.