Kentucky showed its many weapons Tuesday night. Surprisingly, UK needed many weapons to subdue Vanderbilt 65-57.
Devin Booker, the hottest shooter in America, had a quiet night. Having made 20-of-28 three-point shots in the last seven games, Booker did not make a shot from beyond the arc for the first time since Dec. 7.
But Aaron Harrison came to the rescue. His 14 points steadied Kentucky. Dakari Johnson added 10.
"That's what makes them the best team in the country," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said of UK's many options. "They can have a guy have an off night. ... Their margin of error is quite substantial."
Although never trailing for a seventh time this season, Kentucky never delivered a knockout punch in improving to 18-0 overall and 5-0 in the SEC.
Vanderbilt, 11-7 overall and 1-4 in the SEC, stayed within striking distance throughout. Freshman Riley LaChance, who made six of eight shots, led all scorers with 16 points.
"I'm OK with how my team played," Stallings said. "A lot of fight. A lot of energy. And a lot of grit. Of course, you have to play that way against them or they'll embarrass you."
Kentucky led 33-26 at halftime. As the Cats left the floor, there was a palpable feeling in the air that the margin should have been much larger.
If Kentucky was going to reassert dominance in the second half, it didn't happen early. Vandy scored the first four points, reducing UK's lead to 33-30 and prompting a timeout with 18:10 left.
UK Coach John Calipari inserted four starters (minus starter Dominique Hawkins, who was back after missing the Alabama game) to join Trey Lyles.
Kentucky looked slightly unnerved by Vandy's refusal to submit. UK made only one of its first 10 shots to start the second half.
Then Marcus Lee rode to the rescue. He scored three baskets on three straight trips downcourt. He sandwiched putbacks around a dunk off an Aaron Harrison lob. The second putback gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead: 41-31 with 13:48 left.
"I can definitely sense sometimes the team needs it," Lee said of the energy he's asked to provide.
The lead grew to as much as 45-33, but Vandy kept competing. Two three-pointers by LaChance as a trailer in transition helped. The second reduced UK's lead to 50-46 with 7:50 left.
Yet another three in transition, this time by Matthew Fisher-Davis, made it 54-51.
Kentucky had made only one basket in the previous six minutes-plus. But Andrew Harrison drove and found Wilie Cauley-Stein alone on the baseline. Cauley-Stein, who seldom makes a shot from outside the shadow of the rim, swished a 15-footer to ease the growing anxiety.
"What in the world?" UK Coach John Calipari said he thought. "But he's been practicing that."
The shot was reminiscent of Johnson's ill-advised 15-footer against Ole Miss in a similarly tight second-half spot.
When asked how the time-and-score considerations differed with Cauley-Stein's shot, Calipari smiled and said, "His was good because it went in. If you're going to shoot a ball like that, you better make it."
With the lead at 58-54, Booker air-balled a three-point shot from the right wing. But Aaron Harrison saved the ball to his brother, who passed to Booker on the left wing. Instead of shooting, Booker passed to Aaron Harrison in the left corner. Aaron's three-pointer gave Kentucky a margin to protect in the final two minutes.
Harrison scored all of his points in the second half. Calipari, seemingly facetiously, said his halftime words of wisdom were "I love you."
To which Harrison smiled a knowing smile before saying, "I guess it's really, really, really, really tough love."
UK began the game with its signature defense peppy and pesky. Vanderbilt had turnovers on its first three possessions and did not score until almost four minutes into the game.
The Commodores did not score a second basket until the 12:30 mark. The shot clock ticked inside five seconds four times inside the first seven minutes. Willie Cauley-Stein deflected two feeds into the post.
One play that seemed to typify how UK's defense would not permit a competitive game came with about 10 minutes left.
Freshman Matthew Fisher-Davis rose for a three-point shot in transition. Cauley-Stein seemingly came out of nowhere to block the shot from behind.
For the first time all season, Kentucky was the older, more seasoned team. And it showed. The Cats scored the game's first seven points. The lead grew to as much as 12-4 in the early going.
Vandy, which started three freshmen and two sophomores, hung in there. Two free throws by James Siakam brought the Commodores within 14-13 at the 9:26 mark.
Kentucky, which made only three of its first 12 two-point shots, responded.
Booker did not play a big part. His first shot and basket with 8:03 left was part of an 7-0 run that kept Kentucky ahead.
Late in the half, LaChance's three-point play (fouled by Lyles, who was guarding a perimeter player) brought Vandy within 27-24.
UK used free throws to stay ahead. Lee, a 26.7-percent free thrower (4-of-15) made one of two with 24.3 seconds left.
LaChance set the halftime score by hitting a pullup jumper over Booker with 5 seconds left.