The sad state of affairs in Lexington had brought the Vanderbilt athletics department into the story. Commodore basketball coach C.M. Newton had just accepted Kentucky's offer to become the Wildcats' athletics director starting April 1. Newton had submitted his resignation, effective the end of the season to return to his alma mater as their savior. Once Newton made it official, members of the Nashville media and a few influential Vanderbilt Alumni considered his remaining as coach as a conflict of interest and thought he should step down. Newton refused to consider it.
Additionally, speculation had already begun concerning who would replace Newton as head coach. Newton had already endorsed top assistant John Bostick for the position. Assistant coach Ed Martin, the long-time successful head man at Tennessee State and man most responsible for developing Will Perdue into an all-star, also expressed interest in the job. Bostick and Martin were not talking to the press. Meanwhile, the local media had all but inaugurated David Lipscomb's head coach Don Meyer for the job. In early February 1989, Meyer's NAIA top-ranked Bisons sported a record of 31-0 and averaged over 110 points per game.
Somewhere amidst this three-ring circus, Vanderbilt and Kentucky were scheduled to play a prime-time televised game at Memorial Gymnasium. Both teams sported 6-4 conference records tied with Tennessee and Florida, just one game behind league leader LSU and one half game behind Alabama.
The Commodores started the season slowly, losing five of their first seven games. In the middle of the conference opener against Auburn, Newton moved Barry Booker from guard to forward and inserted Derrick Wilcox at point guard. The Commodores proceeded to run the Tigers off the floor for a 93-77 victory. The new lineup became permanent. Since moving Booker from guard to forward and promoting guard Wilcox to the starting lineup, the Commodores had caught fire, winning 10 of 15 games Would have been 11 if not for a tiny yellow tennis ball). The momentum would continue to the point where the Gold Men would have won the conference championship if it wasn't for that infamous little yellow tennis ball.
Joining the 6-04 Booker and 6-01 Wilcox in the starting lineup were forward Eric Reid (6-09), center Frank Kornet (6-09), and guard Barry Goheen (6-03). This quintet ran the fast break as efficiently as any Commodore five since the days of Roy Skinner and the F-Troop.
Three Commodores had chips on their shoulders when it came to the Wildcats. Booker, Kornet, and Wilcox all hailed from the Bluegrass State, with Kornet growing up in Lexington. None of the trio had been offered scholarships by the big blue.
Kentucky's starters included the aforementioned Mills at one forward spot. Joining him on the front line were forward Reggie Hanson and center LeRon Ellis, the son of NBA great LeRoy Ellis. In the backcourt were guards Derrick Miller and Sean Sutton, the son of the coach. Three reserves had been heavily recruited by Vanderbilt. Swingmen Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey and sharp-shooting guard Richie Farmer had all considered the Commodores before deciding to stay home. These three plus reserve Sean Woods would be forever remembered as "The Unforgettables" when they ended their careers in 1992.
Memorial Gym was packed with 15,626 fans as the two teams shook hands before the opening toss. Kentucky won the tip and took the lead on a quick basket by Mills. That was the final time they would lead the game. Booker connected on a pair of free throws and Reid hit one of two at the line to give Vandy a 3-2 lead.
Vanderbilt's multiple defenses kept Kentucky's shooters off balance for the rest of the night. After Mills hit the opening basket, the Wildcats missed on 16 of their remaining 21 shots in the half. Meanwhile, the Commodores were on fire, hitting 14 of 24 from the field and 7 of 14 from behind the three-point arc. In the final two minutes and change of the opening half, Goheen put the game away by hitting two three-pointers and adding a close-in runner. Booker added a trey and backup forward Steve Grant hit one of two charity tosses. At the same time, the Wildcats could only muster a single made free throw by Miller. At the end of the half, the scoreboard read Vanderbilt 39 Kentucky 18.
The second period started the same way half number one ended. The Commodores held Kentucky to a single basket by Mills, while Goheen hit another three and added a pair of free throws, Kornet connected on two baskets, and Booker and Wilcox scored baskets off the fast break. By the time Kentucky called for a timeout, the score was 52-20, and the game was out of reach.
Once up by more than 30, the Commodores had fun. Goheen completed a behind-the-back pass on the fast break. Kornet drilled home a couple of slams reminiscent of Will Perdue's "Perdunks." The lead ballooned to as much as 35 points before Coach Newton removed the starters. Vanderbilt cruised to an 81-51 slaughter, their worst ever drubbing of Kentucky.
The final statistics were just as one-sided as the score indicated. Vanderbilt hit 27 of 53 field goal attempts for 50.9% to Kentucky's 19 of 58 for 32.8%. Behind the arc, Vandy connected on 10 of 18 for 55.6%, while Kentucky hit only 3 of 15 for 20%. The black and gold won the battle of the boards 39 to 33, and forced four more turnovers than they committed.
Goheen was the star of the game. He finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and a couple of steals. Kornet finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. Booker added 15 points, six rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Wilcox tallied 11 points, pulled down four boards, and dished out six assists.
Although Mills scored the opening basket of the game and Kentucky's first basket of the second half, he only scored five additional points to finish with nine. Sutton led the ‘Cats with 14, with Hanson and Ellis supplying 10 each.
The win improved the Commodores' record to 7-4 in the SEC and 13-10 overall. It would be the beginning of a five-game winning streak that would move Vanderbilt into first place in the league.
Kentucky totally collapsed after this loss, dropping seven of their final nine games (including a season-ending 77-63 defeat at the hands of Vandy in the SEC Tournament). Coach Sutton would get the axe, and after a long coaching search, Rick Pitino would leave the New York Knicks for the job.Some info and statistics came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Vanderbilt Sports Media Department.
The Computer Ratings
The news isn't all bad for the Gold Men according to the computers. Vandy now rates just enough ahead of Ole Miss to be considered a favorite on the road in that game. The consensus of the computer ratings believes the Commodores will finish with a 4-12 league mark and 13-15 overall after losing to Arkansas in the opening round of the SEC Tournament.
With South Carolina pulling off a second upset over Florida, the computers now say that Tennessee will become undisputed conference champion. Concerning the Gamecocks, the computers believe folks in Columbia will have a lot to celebrate. South Carolina closes with five home games and only two road games. The Gamecocks host Mississippi State, Alabama, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and LSU, while traveling to Georgia and Auburn. The computer consensus picks USC to get back to .500 and enter the SEC Tournament at 17-12 overall.
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