19:25 left, first half: GUARD JODIE MEEKS! GUARD JODIE MEEKS!
17:30: Good energy and defensive pressure by the Dores. Vandy has to serve notice that Kentucky's going to get punched in the mouth.
First TV timeout score (15:38): Kentucky 8, Vanderbilt 6.
Observations: It's early, and it shows. Both teams are locked in on some possessions and absent-minded on others. A lot of pent-up energy in the building; let's see who truly settles down first. Oh, and one other thing: GUARD JODIE MEEKS! Make anyone (everyone) else on Kentucky beat you, but not Mister First-Team All-American.
15:02: Jeffery Taylor blocks Meeks's 3-point attempt. Such blanket-like defense has to be part of the VU equation all night long.
14:01: Jimmy Dykes, on the ESPN broadcast, says that only six teams have lineups younger than Vanderbilt. Six. Repeat that—six. Sure makes this season a lot easier to appreciate and admire.
13:20: GUARD JODIE MEEKS!
12:44: Wow, Jermaine Beal with not one, but two swipes of Kentucky guard Michael Porter. That's the effort level that has marked VU's very impressive February.
12:07: No Patrick Patterson on the floor for Kentucky, so without the Cats' big man on the hardwood, Vandy is taking the ball strong to the rack. The Dores have indeed settled down, and they're attacking UK's defense the right way.
11:32: Meeks hits a parking-lot shot over three VU defenders. Sick, illegal, and just plain wrong. They guarded him, and it still didn't matter.
Second TV timeout score (10:26): Vanderbilt 16, Kentucky 15.
Observations: Vandy's playing really solid ball, but notice how—after the ridiculous three by Meeks—the momentum abruptly shifted. Vandy had a poor offensive possession which led to an easy basket by Kentucky, and an ESPN camera shot of Ashley Judd, which can't be good news (they wouldn't show her in a glum mood). If Meeks rains down a dagger despite VU's very best efforts (and that last 28-footer definitely qualified as such a play), the Dores have to simply tip their cap, acknowledge the Kentucky sharpshooter's excellence, and come roaring back with a sound possession at the offensive end.
8:46: In the last 90 seconds or so, Kentucky is showing more patience on offense. The Cats are making the extra pass and getting better looks. Vandy has to create high-percentage opportunities instead of hoisting threes such as that last attempt by Lance Goulbourne.
7:44: A.J. Ogilvy with a very ill-advised elbow after a dead-ball whistle. Given all the elbows and ejections that have marred this college basketball season, any chicken-wing action will receive a close look from administrators.
Third TV timeout score (7:44): Kentucky 22, Vanderbilt 18.
Observations: Very simply, the Dores lost the plot after the second TV timeout. That last sequence was completely controlled by Kentucky, and the energy that marked VU's start has vanished. And as we come back to the action after the commercial break, Ogilvy was slapped with a technical foul. Yeah, perhaps an offensive foul on the Kentucky player to begin with, but still… no need for the dead-ball elbow from Ogilvy.
7:03: Big-time block from Ogilvy to erase what had been a good Wildcat possession. Let's see if that play re-ignites VU.
6:19: On one hand, good hustle by Vandy in an attempt to gain possession, but then again, the initial rebound battle was won by Kentucky in that last skirmish. If you're going to give up close-in shots, you at least have to be there for the board.
5:07: Festus Ezeli with a nice post-up move. That's what VU should be doing: pounding the ball inside to make this game unfold on the blocks, and not on the perimeter.
Fourth TV timeout score (3:52): Kentucky 26, Vanderbilt 24.
Observations: I love the way Meeks is dealing with his "marked man" status. Instead of forcing shots, Kentucky's superstar is drawing defenders and creating good ball rotation in UK's halfcourt sets. The Wildcats are passing the ball faster than Vandy can cover. Kevin Stallings has to emphasize the need for his team to handle switches in an effective manner.
2:19: Goulbourne was so open that he had to take that three-pointer. Happily, he nailed it. When you're obscenely open, and the defense is just daring you to shoot, you have to show that you're willing to let ‘er rip. Maybe, just maybe, that shot will make it even easier for the Dores to go inside in the second half.
0:33: Vandy's defense has been much better in the past minute.
Halftime score: Vanderbilt 30, Kentucky 30.
Observations: In a tie game, it would make sense that both teams can be both satisfied and disappointed about the first 20 minutes of play. Kentucky fans will wonder how they can have 11 bench points (from Kevin Galloway and Darius Miller) and only be tied. Yet, the backers of Big Blue will be thankful that they're dead-even on a night when Meeks has scored just 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting. Vandy diehards will lament the fact that they're tied despite going 15-of-18 from the foul line, but will be relieved to know that they're knotted up at 30-all despite going 7-of-21 from the field in the first half.
The second half shapes up pretty simply: Can the Dores continue to contain Meeks and pound the ball inside for either a steady stream of free throws or high-percentage field goal attempts? Can Kentucky free up Meeks and defend Ogilvy without fouling? And, if first-half trends remain the same, what role player or X-factor will tip the scales?
16:50 left, second half: After three minutes, what else is there to say? The backcourt of Beal and Brad Tinsley engineers a strong start and reshapes the calculus. There's your X-factor, and there's your seven-point VU lead.
First TV timeout score (15:50) Vanderbilt 41, Kentucky 32.
Observations: Stallings and his staff couldn't have asked for a better start to the second stanza. The Cats, however, figure to make a countermove and respond. Much like the first half, it's up to the Dores to shrug off any good play Kentucky might make, and show the mental toughness that will prevent Big Blue from making a big run.
15:20: That's an absolutely awful shot by Taylor, but he redeems himself by going to work on the offensive glass.
14:52: That's what I'm talking about!!!!!!!! Meeks scores to narrow the lead to five points, but Vandy comes right back at the Cats at the other end and gets an "and-one" from Taylor. The energy in Memorial Gym was nervous, but that big play from No. 44 immediately re-established a positive vibe in the arena. That kind of bounce-back possession is exactly what will squelch any Kentucky momentum.
13:37: While UK coach Billy Gillispie takes a timeout, one final addendum about the immediate answer to Meeks's basket: To use a football analogy, it's like the receiver who takes a hellacious hit from the free safety, but holds onto the pigskin and gets up immediately. Initially, one team thinks it has done something special, only for its opponent to make an even bigger statement in response. The ability to display fearlessness to a credentialed opponent does so much to affect the emotional tenor of the competition.
13:18: Poor spacing by Vandy after the timeout. A pointless pass thrown in traffic to a player who was not in a good spot on the floor.
12:27: Uh-oh, Vandy losing its edge again. Flat and stale offensive possessions will give Kentucky new hope.
Second TV timeout score (11:48): Vanderbilt 45, Kentucky 41.
Observations: While the building is quiet right now, it seems as though the Dores are still carrying the play. Why, then, do they have a lead of just four points? Basketball is such a deliciously complete test of athleticism, because a team has to navigate so many possessions in order to win a game. Vandy will have to win a lot more possessions in order to finish off the Cats. Playing better ball for 28 minutes and change has the Dores only slightly in front. Nearly a dozen daunting minutes left to go…
11:36: That's a great find by (I think) Beal to hit Goulbourne with the one-handed cross-court pass for the three just before the end of the shot clock. Terrific play under pressure.
10:25: Jeffery Taylor has been a warrior in the second half. More energy than anyone else on the floor, and this from a man who has to guard You Know Who at the other end.
10:15: Now Beal makes an impact play.
10:01: Ogilvy with another block. VU has rediscovered its groove—energy, defense, the works.
9:08: Meeks is missing. That's what happens when you're guarded closely—the lack of consistently available looks makes you press when you do find a sliver of space. Taylor is your game MVP.
8:50: And Taylor picks up his fourth foul and has to go out. He also appears to be in a bit of pain.
Third TV timeout score (7:47): Vanderbilt 60, Kentucky 44.
Observations: The last four minutes illustrate the other side of basketball: While a winning game demands possession-by-possession consistency and relentlessness, it's also true that if a team applies pressure and nails shots in a timely manner, it can break the back of the opposition. Four finely-concentrated minutes witnessed A-plus basketball from VU. The Dores knocked down open threes. They erased Kentucky shots near the rim, thanks to Ogilvy. They gained second-chance points by crashing the boards. They got points at the foul line and off steals. Four really, really good minutes turned into a 15-3 run and a 16-point advantage. Now, we're getting to the point where time-and-score situations are almost around the corner.
6:34: Two VU turnovers and two UK makes, and it's down to 12. I got a little ahead of myself there…
6:23: An and-one gives the Cats a chance to immediately whittle the lead to 9 points. The free throw doesn't drop, but the lead is down to 10. "Just a few possessions can change things…"
6:00: Vandy gets a great result, but what's so impressive about that possession is the fact that the Dores were so smart. They went to their strength and exploited UK's weakness. They calmly executed instead of playing too quickly. Great composure by Taylor and Ogilvy, who combine for a very big momentum-blunting bucket.
5:31: Meeks hits another parking-lot shot. Dykes makes an obvious but wise point that deserves to be repeated at this stage of the battle: "You have to guard him for 40 full minutes." That's right—one lazy minute will lead to two or three triples and the shockingly quick elimination of a hard-earned lead.
4:59: VU attacks the rim again, and scores again, on yet another crucial possession. This time it's Beal. Your three Vandy dandies tonight? Taylor (1), Ogilvy (2), Beal (3), and it's not even close.
3:40: Steve Tchiengang swats Meeks near the basket to get in on the act.
Fourth TV timeout score (3:29): Vanderbilt 65, Kentucky 55.
Observations: Meeks does have 19, but at the cost of 19 shots (and 14 misses against just 5 makes). Vandy has 14 second-half free throws after the 18 charity pitches in the first half. Now, it's all about shutting down Meeks, working clock, and staying solid at the foul line. Welcome to the world of endgame basketball, different from the first 35 minutes of action.
2:24: Wow, that looked incredibly dangerous, but Ogilvy—hit in the lower portion of his left leg by a hard-driving Meeks—is okay. Thank goodness…
1:59: On each of the past two possessions, Vandy ran only 15-20 seconds on the shot clock. The only time you do that in an endgame situation is when you have a layup available. The Dores hit two of them to add to their lead and salt this one away.
1:15: With the game in the ol' deep freeze, some not-yet-final stats to mention: Vandy didn't just attempt a lot of free throws; a team that has often struggled at the foul line hit 78 percent of its stationary 15-footers in the first 39 minutes of this contest. Big improvement… In the shadow of the big three (Taylor, Ogilvy and Beal), Lance Goulbourne chipped in 15 points thanks to 3-of-5 shooting beyond the arc. Huge contribution off the bench for the students of Stallings.
0:22: This kind of performance—if it can be taken to road or neutral courts (at Florida, at LSU, and then in the SEC Tournament)—will lead to a stack of wins. Maybe, just maybe, VU can do this year what lil' ol' Georgia did last year in March. At any rate, the rhythm that disappeared during the off week (and on Saturday against Tennessee) is back in Vandyland tonight. A superb showing for a growing team that is finding itself in all aspects of competition.
Final Score: Vanderbilt 77, Kentucky 64.