Mark Story

Mark Story: Cats zone out in second half of bizarre game

First half action in the UK-Vanderbilt game in Nashville, Tn.
First half action in the UK-Vanderbilt game in Nashville, Tn.

NASHVILLE — For a night, Music City turned into bizarro world. Up was down, dark was light and nothing made sense.

With 13:42 left in the game, Kentucky led Vanderbilt 47-31. A sellout Memorial Gymnasium crowd of 14,361 that included a hefty helping of blue was all but in snooze mode.

Then, out of nowhere, UK chose to re-enact the second half of the 1984 Kentucky-Georgetown Final Four game — with the infamous 3-of-33 second-half shooting effort by the Wildcats.

With the game under complete control, the Cats became confounded by a Vandy zone defense and started missing shots. And missing and missing.

At one point, UK missed 12 in a row. The Wildcats went almost nine minutes without a basket.

Meanwhile, the same offensively challenged Vandy team that scored 33 points — in the entire game — in a humiliating early-season loss to Marist suddenly got a mighty whiff of hope. The youthful Commodores unleashed a stunning 18-0 run.

With 6:10 left, suddenly Vanderbilt led 49-47.

"We just wanted to get the win after we saw how things started turning around," UK guard Ryan Harrow said.

At least Kentucky did that.

Kyle Wiltjer hit a big bucket in the lane, Harrow hit a huge three, Alex Poythress two clutch foul shots and Nerlens Noel a stone-cold bucket in the lane — that according to TV replays, should not have counted because it did not beat the shot clock — and the Cats survived 60-58.

"I'm happy we won," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "When we win, I'm happy; when we lose, I'm sad. We won."

It's pretty much this simple.

Rather than speculating on where Kentucky (10-4, 1-0 SEC) will be seeded in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, UK would be well served to put all its efforts into simply making the Dance.

Vandy lost its top six players from the squad that upset Kentucky in last season's SEC Tournament finals. The Commodores (6-7, 0-1) already have losses this season to Marist, Davidson and Middle Tennessee. Vanderbilt shot 10-of-36 in the first half and started the second by misfiring on 7 of 9.

Yet, it took Kentucky to the brink.

Putting the best spin on a difficult night, Calipari emphasized that UK "looked the way I wanted us to look" in building the 47-31 lead. "Then we went nine minutes without scoring," he said. "That's what got us in trouble."

What is troubling from the UK perspective is that, with the conference season started, the Cats' whole still seems substantially less than the sum of its parts. The same problems keep cropping up.

With a pair of bouncy big men in Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein, UK got outrebounded by smaller Vanderbilt 42-37. The Commodores claimed a whopping 20 offensive boards.

"They outworked us," Calipari said. "They beat us to 50-50 balls."

For the third straight time in a true road environment, Poythress struggled. Averaging five points and 3.5 rebounds in road games (losses at Notre Dame and Louisville), the 6-7 freshman had seven points, six rebounds, five fouls and four turnovers.

Once Vandy went zone and Kentucky started to struggle, the Cats went nine long minutes without being able to find an answer.

"A lot of plays, Nerlens (Noel) didn't know which way to go because it was so loud, he couldn't hear the (play) calls," UK's Harrow said.

Of course, Vanderbilt is not the only team in Thursday night's game that lost its top six players from a year ago.

When it became apparent that Calipari, through heavy reliance on one-and-done players, was essentially going to have a new team every year, what we've seen so far in 2012-13 is what many expected UK to look like.

UK has made three straight trips to the round of eight, two straight to the Final Four and won the 2012 NCAA title.

Maybe the new team every year has caught up to the Cats at last. "But we did make big plays down the stretch and pulled it out," Calipari said.

That's a sign of hope.

What appears to be a very weak SEC is not doing UK any favors. Other than Florida and Missouri, there are no conference teams that Kentucky can beat and really turn heads.

Conversely, any SEC loss not to the Gators or Tigers will look like a bad defeat.

For the current edition of Cal's Cats, just making the NCAA Tournament, period, is the current realistic goal.

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