Something had to give.
To the surprise of few, what gave was the Commodores. Though Kevin Stallings' team made things infinitely more interesting than it had done on its visit a year ago, the homestanding Wildcats turned up the intensity late and overpowered Vandy, 75-63. Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch and Kelenna Azubuike led the way with 16 points each for the Big Blue.
Kentucky (10-1, 1-0 SEC) led from wire to wire, and for most of the night looked like the No. 7 team in the land. Spurred on by the throng of 22,927, the Cats outshot the Commodores 54% to 41% from the field (45% to 21% from 3-point range), and dominated the boards, 42-23.
But Vanderbilt, seeking a measure of redemption after having been embarrassed 106-44 one year earlier at Rupp, showed some severe moxie under Kentucky's withering pressure and at times exposed the Wildcats' shortage of experienced reserves. The Commodores forced UK into an uncharacteristic 23 turnovers.
The Wildcats pounced on the Commodores early to the tune of a 22-8 advantage, as the Commodores struggled to score against Kentucky's notoriously stout defense. For the few Vandy fans who had wormed their way into Rupp Arena, it was a stretch that brought back memories of the second half vs. Auburn three days earlier.
But the Commodores would use their own defense to creep their way back. Late in the first half, a follow-up slam by Julian Terrell after a Mario Moore steal cut Kentucky's lead to 31-26. Consecutive steals and running layups by Moore cut the Wildcat lead to a minuscule 34-32 at halftime.
"This was a game of spurts," Moore said. "That's how they (Kentucky) make the game. They controlled the tempo, and you have to be good at controlling the tempo against good teams."
Tubby Smith's Wildcats sprinted out of the second-half gates with a 14-1 run to take a 48-35 lead. Once again, the Commodores counter-punched with a 22-9 run to cut the lead back to 57-55 with just under six minutes left.
As it turned out, the Wildcats, winners of all 19 of their SEC contests a year ago, had one more run left in them. The Cats ended the game on an 18-8 run, as Vanderbilt once again couldn't seem to buy an outside shot.
"I thought Kentucky's ability to put a lot of pressure on us and take us out of our rhythm made a big difference," Stallings said. "Their intensity at the start of each half I thought was really key, and I take the blame for that, because it's my job to have our guys ready to start the game and the half. In both cases we were digging ourselves out of a hole."
Vandy's leading scorer Matt Freije (right) picked up two quick fouls in the game's first seven minutes, and was held scoreless until the 12:06 mark in the second half, but finished with 13 points.
"A lot of their plays were centered around Matt and I tried to shut him down to the best of my ability," said Erik Daniels, who was mostly responsible for shutting down Freije. "He is one of the best, and it was great going up against one of the best."
"[Erik Daniels] just guarded [Freije] really well," Stallings said. "He's a good player and he just played him tough. I'm sure Matt's disappointed, and we're disappointed for Matt, but he gave a great effort and they did a good job of guarding him."
Vanderbilt had been averaging 20.4 assists per game, but could manage only 10 vs. Kentucky.
With the win, its tenth of the season, Kentucky continued its remarkable dominance over Vanderbilt in Lexington. The win was UK's 27th straight over Vandy at Rupp Arena. The Commodores' last win in Lexington came in 1974 at the old Memorial Coliseum.
"I knew it would be a real battle," said Tubby Smith. "We are very pleased to get the win tonight in a very hard fought game.
"I've been impressed with Vanderbilt and the way they are playing. They showed why they are a top-20 team in the way they fought tonight."
Vanderbilt returns to SEC action on Wednesday, as the Commodores take on Tennessee (9-2, 1-1 SEC) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Volunteers were spanked 95-57 Saturday by No. 14 Florida. Kentucky travels to Starkville, Miss. Tuesday for an ESPN-televised game vs. unbeaten Mississippi State (13-0).
With 13 points, Matt Freije surpassed Tom Hagan and moved into eighth place on the all-time scoring list with 1,521 career points.