When the Commodores (10-15, 3-11 SEC) clash for a second time with the Wildcats (24-3, 14-0) on Wednesday (7:00 p.m. CT, Jefferson-Pilot TV), the situation could hardly be more different from that of Jan. 14. What happened on that amazing, pivotal night seven weeks ago would alter the course of the 2002-03 season for both teams.
Flash back to Jan. 14... Kevin Stallings' team was 8-5, but still feeling fairly good about itself. Three of the five losses, Vandy fans rationalized, had come against Top Ten teams, and four of the five had come on the road. After pulling off a Memorial Gym shocker three nights earlier over No. 4 Alabama, the Commodores were suddenly flying high. Convinced their team possessed talent, Vandy fans figured the upset might be the elusive landmark win that would trigger a win streak and return the Dores to SEC prominence.
Kentucky, meanwhile, was 11-3, but non-conference losses to Virginia, Michigan State and (worst of all) Louisville had fickle fans of the Big Blue screaming for Tubby Smith's scalp. Still trying to shed the "Team Turmoil" moniker, the Wildcats were not even ranked in the Top Ten on Jan. 14. They had opened SEC play 2-0, but those two wins were narrow and unimpressive. A skeptical Big Blue Nation was unimpressed.
Based on the evidence at hand, Vanderbilt fans felt cautiously optimistic about their chances to knock off a vulnerable Kentucky team at home for the second year in a row. As the two teams took Ingram Court that Tuesday night before a national ESPN TV audience, the house was rockin'.
And for a while that night, it indeed appeared the Commodores had conjured up a special brew of Memorial Magic. Vanderbilt connected on five early 3-pointers and jumped out to a 25-11 lead midway through the first half. The 14,168 patrons were beside themselves (all except for the Cat fans who had snarfed up seats in 3F and 3L). As the half ended Kentucky recovered slightly, but the Commodores still led 36-28.
Exactly what happened inside the visitors' locker room walls that night is known only to the UK team-- but much has been made of it by the media in retrospect. Smith by all accounts unleashed his wrath, and much of it was directed at his senior guard Keith Bogans. "He knows once he gets in my face, that gets the other guys going," Bogans would say later.
Whatever was said, Kentucky returned to the floor and put on one of the most amazing, overwhelming defensive exhibitions these eyes have ever seen. All five Wildcats began playing a belly-to-belly style of man-to-man defense that covered the white shirts like the proverbial "white on rice." Cliff Hawkins, inserted by Smith specifically to torment Vandy's point guards, blanketed Russell Lakey and forced him into four second-half turnovers.
Under the unrelenting pressure, the Commodores simply wilted-- the offense that had hit 7-of-9 3-pointers in the first half managed only 16 points and four field goals in the second half. So suffocating was the Wildcats' defense, not only could the Commodores not get shots off... they could barely get a pass off.
"Their defense completely dominated the game and their physicality completely dominated our players," said Stallings afterwards.
"We had trouble just completing a single pass," said Vandy's leading scorer Matt Freije. "You can't play basketball 45 feet away from the basket."
''That's the kind of defense we're capable of playing," said Smith in the aftermath. "That's what we've been trying to get them to do. When we defend with that type of intensity and that type of ferociousness, we can shut teams down."
Indeed. Kentucky's 74-52 comeback win seemed to enlighten the team as to how good it could be defensively. In their subsequent ascent to a No. 2 national ranking, the Cats began squeezing the life out of even the most powerful of their opponents. They held mighty Florida to 22 points in a half; Ole Miss to 20 points in a half; Alabama to 46 points in a game.
The ensuing win streak has reduced opposing coaches to speechless awe. After being dominated 87-67 by Kentucky in Lexington, the only advice Georgia coach Jim Harrick could offer for teams that have to play at Rupp was "Cancel." The Vanderbilt game was the last time the Wildcats have trailed a team at halftime.
On Sunday in Athens, Kentucky came as close to losing as it had in a while. Trailing by two points with four minutes left, Georgia had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead. The Wildcats forced four turnovers on four straight Bulldog possessions.