Lowery: "fantastic team effort" by Vandy

Rupp Arena was electric on Tuesday for the beginning of SEC play. Randolph Morris played 28 minutes off the bench, pouring in 10 points while also contributing 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Only Rajon Rondo (9 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist) had more minutes than Morris for the Wildcats.

The loyal Kentucky fans, energized by Randolph's return, were taken out of the game for most of the first half by their team's poor shooting – the Wildcats only shot 35% from the field and 25% on three-pointers for the night.

If I worked for ESPN, this is roughly where the article would end.

The other side of the story is that Vanderbilt put together a fantastic team effort on both sides of the ball Tuesday night, forcing Kentucky into low-percentage shots while executing the offense exceptionally well.

The defensive effort was led by Ted Skuchas and Derrick Byars. While Skuchas failed to score on the night, he battled Morris in the post for 21 minutes, making the Wildcats' only dangerous big man fight hard for every inch of post position. Skuchas' efforts allowed Julian Terrell and DeMarre Carroll to lock down on the other Kentucky forwards and centers without having to double-team Morris. Carroll and Terrell held forwards Sheray Thomas, Bobby Perry, Rekalin Sims, and centers Lukasz Obrzut and Jared Carter to a total of 4 points and 5 rebounds in 55 minutes of play.

Derrick Byars was a fantastic contributor for the Commodores on both offense and defense. As far as offense went, Byars contributed 12 points (including 4-4 free-throw shooting), as well as 2 assists and 2 offensive rebounds. On several defensive possessions, Byars was able to contain Rondo's much-hyped ability to penetrate to the basket and score – Rondo was often forced to abort his efforts and reset the offense. Mario Moore also excelled on the defensive end, limiting dribble penetration and turning that defensive weakness into a strength for the ‘Dores.

DeMarre Carroll was, as always, a tenacious defender for the ‘Dores, but tonight his other skills took center stage. With 11 rebounds and 17 points, he led Vanderbilt in both categories. His perfect 7-of-7 free-throw shooting is seen by many as an aberration for the career 50% free-throw shooter, but knowledgeable fans say that DeMarre's hard work at the charity stripe was bound to pay off soon.

The Commodores got out to a quick 8 point lead before Kentucky scored a single point. Kentucky's head coach, Tubby Smith, responded by removing all five Wildcat starters from the game and giving Randolph Morris his first playing time of the season. Kentucky was able to shut down the Commodore offense temporary with intense ball pressure, holding Vanderbilt scoreless for nearly eight minutes. However, excellent team defense by the Commodores allowed them to hold the lead until the offense got back on track. The ‘Dores widened the lead back to 8 points before Kentucky went on a mini-scoring-run to make the halftime score 23-20.

The Wildcats never had the lead in the first half, and it was becoming clear that Randolph Morris could not walk on water. The Commodores succeeded excellently in the number one key to the game – gaining the early edge in confidence. As the VandyMania game preview (http://vanderbilt.scout.com/2/487373.html) noted, Kentucky fans and players alike were hoping that things would magically fall into place with the return of the prodigal post player. However, Vanderbilt's early scoring run and solid perimeter defense quieted the Rupp crowd and infected the Kentucky locker room with doubt.

The first half also clearly established Vanderbilt's "road warrior" mentality. Even when several calls in the first 10 minutes went Kentucky's way, and the Wildcat fans cheered wildly every time Morris so much as sneezed, the ‘Dores didn't miss a beat. This road warrior mindset would be further tested in the second half.

Vanderbilt came out of the gates strong in the second half, and as a result of their desire and confidence, the Commodores' lead stood at 14 points with 15 minutes left to play. Vanderbilt's desire to win was not lost on the Wildcats – "They were hungry," said Kentucky's Ravi Moss. "They were going to come in here and beat us tonight."

But the ‘Cats weren't ready to give up just yet. Led by Moss' 4-of-8 three point shooting and several strong post plays by Morris, Kentucky went on an amazing 19-4 run to recapture the lead and send the home crowd into roars of ecstasy. The whole building seemed to start thinking "Maybe this is the turning point…"

But it was not to be. Vanderbilt was not rattled by the hostile atmosphere even in the face of Kentucky's 19-4 run. The reason that Vandy was able to recover without falling more than one point behind was because they succeeded in the other two key areas of the game – containing Rondo, and getting big performances from Byars and Shan Foster. Rondo was held below his season averages in points, rebounds, and assists by the stifling Vandy defense, while earning less than one point per shot. Foster was 4-of-6 from the perimeter on the way to 16 points, and many of his threes stopped Ravi Moss' hot shooting from taking Vanderbilt out of the game. Byars played 34 minutes of energetic defense and smart offense, making few (if any) mental mistakes.

After the game, Kevin Stallings said that Vanderbilt had prepared for exactly the situation they faced in the second half: "We talked about the fact that we would have a lead, and we talked about the fact that… they would make it frantic, and that 24,000 people would be trying to make us lose. We had to be able to stand up when that happened – it really played out like we said it was going to."

The team relied on all-SEC talent Shan Foster for some big shots down the stretch. Stallings praised Foster's effort and that of other Commodores: "Our kids stood up and made plays; Shan Foster made a couple of huge shots, and he stemmed the tide for us." Foster credits his aggressive 2nd half attitude for his improved play late in the game: "For some reason, the second half is when I make most of my shots. Why? I don't know. But I was trying to be more aggressive."

With five minutes left in the game, the Commodores created a four-point lead with a made free-throw, an offensive rebound of a missed free-throw, followed by a crucial three-point basket. Kentucky never tied or led Vanderbilt from that point on, and Vanderbilt won at Rupp for the first time ever.

When ESPN asked Coach Stallings after the game how it felt to win at Rupp in the context of Vanderbilt's long losing streak at Kentucky, he made it clear that tonight's game was more about the present than the past. "I'm sure glad that we don't have to listen to that anymore," Stallings said when ESPN brought up the losing streak. "It's been a long time coming, and I'm very proud of our players."

Vanderbilt hopes to improve on its impressive 3-1 road record and 2-0 SEC mark when the Dores go on the road to play Arkansas this weekend. But the fact that the Kentucky game was played on Tuesday instead of Wednesday gives Vanderbilt fans an extra day to savor the sweet victory.

Randolph Morris had 10 points and 7 rebounds Tuesday night, and guess what? It didn't matter one bit.


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