Magic vanishes as mysteriously as it had appeared

Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt Commodores turned in by far their best half of basketball of the season Tuesday night against No. 16 Kentucky. That's the good news. The bad news is that this same bunch of Commodores also turned in their worst half of basketball of the season, all in the same night.

Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt Commodores turned in by far their best half of basketball of the season Tuesday night against No. 16 Kentucky.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that this same bunch of Commodores also turned in their worst half of basketball of the season, all in the same night.

As you no doubt know by now, Kentucky ultimately schooled Vanderbilt for a 74-52 victory Tuesday within the usually friendly confines of Memorial Gymnasium.  Doubtless, the final score didn't raise too many eyebrows as it was flashed around the country on ESPN SportsCenter.  But the way it happened was bitter, bitter medicine for the crowd of 14,168, most of whom had shown up hoping to see the Commodores knock off a second ranked opponent in four nights.

Fresh off an exhilarating 70-69 upset of No. 4 Alabama three nights before, the Commodores continued their sharp-shooting ways into the first half on Tuesday-- and how.  Up until last Saturday, the Dores had struggled all season with cold outside shooting.  But Vanderbilt had unexpectedly re-discovered its shooting touch just in time to help them pull off a landmark upset over the Tide.

Tuesday night, it was Mario Moore and Matt Freije who each warmed up to knock down three early three-pointers, as the Commodores shot a blistering 7-of-9 (78%) from behind the arc in the first half.  As Vanderbilt jumped out to a 25-11 lead ten minutes into the game, Commodore fans who had packed Memorial Gym (and who were watching around the country on ESPN) sensed one of those special nights when the notorious, proverbial "Magic" was alive and flourishing.

Kentucky, traditionally known for a smothering man-to-man defense, opened up in a zone, but the Commodores' hot shooting shot the Wildcats right out of it; or perhaps you could say Vandy found a "zone" against the zone.  Meanwhile, for the first 20 minutes it was Kentucky that looked uncharacteristically erratic-- the Vandy defense forced UK into eight turnovers, four by Keith Bogans alone.

The Commodores' surreal shooting display had Memorial Maniacs geeked for a second straight victory over the Big Blue-- Vandy had shot the Cats right out of the gym last February in an 86-73 victory, and it appeared as though they were well on their way toward doing it again.

But Smith's decision to go man-to-man paid almost instant results.  Lots of Vandy's opponents have played an aggressive man-to-man defense, but this style of defense was unique in that it put all five Wildcat defenders practically inside the Vanderbilt team's white shirts.  Suddenly, not only could the Commodores not even get off an outside shot-- they couldn't dribble or complete a pass without a turnover.

"I think that's what we've been trying to get over to our players that if we defend the way we're capable of defending then we'll have a chance in every game," said Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith. "If you can defend with that type of intensity and ferociousness you're going to be able to shut people down and keep yourself in a position where if the shots are not falling eventually you can create some offense with our defense."

"They just hit us with a big, hard punch, and we didn't respond to it," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "They turned up the heat, and we didn't respond. Their defense completely dominated (the second half), and their physicality completely dominated our players."

Kentucky went with a smaller lineup that included 6-1 guard Cliff Hawkins, and the stifling Wildcat pressure forced Russell Lakey and the other Commodore guards into countless giveaways.  UK took its first lead at 43-42 on a Marquis Estill hook shot, and the Wildcats never looked back.  The Commodores were held to only one field goal in the first 17 minutes of the second half, and were outscored by the outlandish score of 46-16 in the second frame.

At times Tubby Smith's Wildcats looked like one of those great Adolph Rupp teams, with steals leading to uncontested buckets on fast breaks.  The final stats were nightmarish-- Kentucky had 31 points in the paint to Vandy's 9; 10 fast-break points to Vandy's 2.  "It seemed like we had trouble completing a single pass," said a befuddled Matt Freije.

The simple strategy for beating UK's man-to-man, one might think, would have been to feed Brian Thornton and let him work underneath the basket. But Thornton seldom got his hands on the ball, as Vanderbilt's guards had difficulty advancing the ball past the backcourt.  "You can't play basketball 45 feet from the basket," said Freije.  Kentucky also stifled Vandy on its offensive board and scored 14 points on putbacks alone.

As the game got out of hand late, the blue-clad denizens which had infested the rafters of Memorial Gym began to take over, with cries of "Go Big Blue!"  Kentucky, which had won 18 straight in the series before last February's loss, asserted its dominance once more.  Don't look now, but Tubby Smith, who had come under considerable fire for three December losses, has the Cats atop the SEC East with a 3-0 record.

Meanwhile Kevin Stallings must go back to the drawing board and try to re-conjure the shooting magic that had visited the Commodores (8-6, 1-3 SEC) for three halves, but which disappeared in Tuesday's second half as mysteriously as it had appeared.


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