NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the second time this season, Vanderbilt had a lead on rival Kentucky at halftime. But just like the first matchup, the Wildcats imposed their will over the second 20 minutes before escaping with a 78-64 victory inside Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday.
“We started off the game with pretty good energy and really good focus, then in the second half it just kind of got away from us there,” Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “I thought they just did a good job of once they got back in the game just continuing to put great energy and great force into the game and we just couldn’t ever really recover. When we did have opportunities we missed them – squandered some opportunities at the foul line and things like that.
“Against a team like Kentucky, you have to be really, really good and I didn’t think we were good in the second half. But we’ll continue to work and we’ll continue to get better.”
Vandy went to Lexington, Kentucky, on Jan. 29 and led 35-27 at halftime. It stayed in front until falling behind with 8:33 to play that night and didn’t have enough in the tank to rally one last time.
On Tuesday, Kentucky’s comeback was much quicker. It needed just 8:44 into the second half to complete a 19-10 run that continued to steamroll for much of the remainder of the contest.
The Wildcats would build a lead a large as 15 – and the Dores could only get as close as five points down the stretch.
“Nothing wrong with the effort or trying, it’s just a little more attention to detail – and their main guys played 36, 37 minutes so I’m not going to put it on fatigue. It’s a matter of want-to,” Stackhouse said. “Once they got back into the game and kind of sensed that we were on our heels, they took it up a notch.
“We got to find a way to battle adversity and still be able to find that next level. I think that’s just part of our growth.”
Vanderbilt is way past looking for moral victories at this point, but the 14-point defeat was much closer than the final score would indicate once again. The Dores led for the first 27 minutes of the contest and were up 36-22 late in the first half.
A dry spell of nearly five minutes before the break, however, gave the 12th-ranked Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 SEC) some hope. And they took advantage in the second half with blocked shots and defensive stops on one end and layups and dunks on the other.
But getting close – and not over the hump – is not what it’s all about.
“It gets a little stale. You’d like to get some wins at the end of it – and I think we will,” Stackhouse said. “We’ve just had a tough stretch here where we’ve played two or three of the best in conference – and maybe two or three of the best in the country. It comes down to our execution and our Xs and Os and our schemes which I’ll put up against any of these teams that we play.
“Like I’ve said before, there’s no shortage of fight in our guys in trying to compete and win the game. We just got to do it a little bit smarter and do it together a little bit more.”
Vanderbilt junior Saben Lee scored 20 during the defeat and moved into 37th on the program’s all-time scoring list. Freshman Dylan Disu had his second double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) of the season against the Cats and totaled 25 points and 21 rebounds in two meetings with against Kentucky.
Scotty Pippen Jr. finished with 13 points and five assists and Maxwell Evans added 10. Beneath the surface of the final score there were certainly positive takeaways for a team and program going through growing pains.
The Commodores next head to Florida (14-9, 6-4 SEC) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“They were up on Mississippi State, they were up on us twice at half, they beat LSU – I wouldn’t want to be playing Vandy anymore,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “It’s obvious he has a great connection with them because they’re fighting for him. They’re not letting go of the rope. There’s nothing other than, ‘Tell us what to do.’
“He’s doing a hecukuva job.”