NEW ORLEANS-- After the 106-44 decimation Kentucky had hung on Vanderbilt nine days earlier at Rupp Arena, the Commodores were looking for any kind of redemption Friday at the Louisiana Superdome. Vandy managed to keep the game close for the first 15 minutes, before the No. 2 Wildcats turned up the heat and coasted to a methodical 81-63 victory in an SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup.
An 18-point loss is an 18-point loss, but on this night, against a Wildcat team that has looked all but invincible for the past two months, it beat the heck out of a 62-point drubbing. Keith Bogans led No. 2 Kentucky with 16 points, and Jules Camara added 13 as the Wildcats (27-3) stretched their winning streak to 21 games, the nation's longest.
The Wildcats advanced to face the Tennessee-Auburn winner in a Saturday afternoon semifinal. The loss ended Vanderbilt's season with an 11-18 record.
Mario Moore led Vandy in scoring for the second night in a row-- the freshman point guard followed up his 25-point outburst against Alabama with a team-high 18 points against the Big Blue. Matt Freije (13) was the only other Commodore in double figures.
"We fought them hard in the first half," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "In the second half we just couldn't stop them, and our team wore down a little bit. But our kids fought hard.
"I thought we gave every effort that we could give to try to win this basketball game tonight. Kentucky's just a better team than we are."
Stallings went on to praise the Wildcats' defense. "Their defense is probably the best that I've ever competed against in college, and that's saying something."
After playing before a sparse crowd of only 8,500 on Thursday evening, the Commodores returned to the court at the Louisiana Superdome Friday only to find a large, enthusiastic crowd dressed mostly in Kentucky blue.
Vanderbilt opened up a 17-8 lead in the early going behind some hot shooting, but the No. 2 Wildcats never panicked. Tubby Smith simply turned up the Wildcats' trademark defensive intensity, and the Commodores couldn't maintain the torrid shooting pace.
Kentucky took its first lead at 28-26 with four minutes left in the first half and never looked back. The Wildcats outscored Vandy 14-2 in the first half's final minutes to surge to a 36-28 halftime lead.
"I thought, much like the game at our place, they kind of turned the tide on us at the end of the first half," said Stallings. "They just wear you down. They're just so athletic and so physical that over the course of time they wear you down. They're bigger than we are, they're stronger than we are, and they're faster than we are."
Kentucky took its largest lead at 74-47 well into the second half, but Vandy battled to the final horn and outscored the Cats 16-7 in the game's final minutes to keep the score respectable. The Wildcats outshot Vandy 53% to 35% and scored 46 of their 81 points in the paint.
Kentucky held Matt Freije to 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting and never let him become a factor. Julian Terrell, who, like Moore, started his third game in a row, added 9 points in 20 minutes. Brian Thornton was the team's leading rebounder with 7.
Vanderbilt had reached the quarterfinal round with an 82-69 upset of Alabama on Thursday, a win that had snapped a nine-game losing streak for the Commodores.
NOTES: Wildcat starting guard Gerald Fitch was held out of the starting lineup by Tubby Smith for an unspecified violation of team rules, but the senior still played 12 minutes and scored 7 points.
Scott Hundley was held out of his third consecutive game due to a chest injury suffered before the Tennessee game.
Walk-on Matt Carter, Vanderbilt's only senior, played in the last two minutes in his final appearance as a Commodore.
Kentucky coach Tubby Smith shakes hands with Vanderbilt's Mario Moore after Kentucky's 81-63 victory in the quarterfinal of the SEC Conference tournament in the Superdome Friday, March 14, 2003, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)