Kentucky (21-11) came in as a bubble team projected possibly as a play-in candidate after coach John Calipari sent six players to the NBA last summer and tried reloading yet again with another top recruiting class. But Nerlens Noel had surgery earlier this week to fix his torn ACL, and the Wildcats couldn’t match the intensity of the Commodores.
Kevin Bright scored 11 points, Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller had 10 apiece. Vanderbilt (16-16) shot 50 percent overall, hitting 8 of 17 3-pointers.
Archie Goodwin led Kentucky with 12 points, and Kyle Wiltjer had 10. Ryan Harrow was 2 of 15 for four points as Kentucky was held to a season-low in points. The Wildcats outrebounded Vandy 32-30 but just couldn’t keep up with how well the Commodores shot the ball.
The Commodores also lost their top six players off the team that won the school’s first tourney title in 61 years with three also in the NBA. Their growing pains have been such that winning is the only way to keep playing now.
They came out and hit 18 of their first 27 shots, including their first five of the second half, in building a 48-27 lead. Kentucky clawed back with 10 straight points, the last a high-flying dunk by Goodwin to pull within 48-37 with 12:43 to go. Then the Wildcats went cold, not hitting another field goal until Alex Poythress’ layup with 7:31 remaining made it 53-41 because Vandy suddenly couldn’t hit after a Kevin Bright 3-pointer with 11:22 left.
Johnson hit two free throws followed by a 3-pointer from Sheldon Jeter to push the lead back to 17 with 6:00 left, and Kentucky didn’t threaten again. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings was able to pull his starters in the final minute for an ovation.
Kentucky swept Vanderbilt in the regular season, but the Wildcats won both games by a combined six points. The Commodores weren’t happy about a 60-58 loss Jan. 10 at Memorial Gym where officials missed a late shot clock violation on a key bucket by Noel.
Even though this game is only a couple miles away from Vanderbilt’s campus, Wildcats’ fans turned Bridgstone Arena into Rupp South filled with blue from the court up to the rafters.
The atmosphere only seemed to rev up the Commodores.
Kentucky led twice, the last on a reverse layup by Goodwin at 6-5. Shelby Moats hit a 3 from the top of the key for Vandy, then Willie Cauley-Stein dunked to tie it up at 8. Odom scored on a layup putting Vandy up 10-8 with 12:42 to go. Kentucky got within two three times, the last at 18-16 with 6:22 to go on a layup by Harrow on his lone bucket of the half as he missed eight shots.
Vanderbilt finished the half on a 20-7 run as the Commodores kept tipping away passes and pushing the Wildcats out away from the basket. When they had the ball, the Commodores knocked down shot after shot. Cauley-Stein picked up his second personal with 4:53 and went to the bench. Vanderbilt scored 16 of the next 23 points.
Moats capped the half as he hit a long jumper in the final seconds for a 37-23 lead before going to the bench for a chest bump with Fuller.