LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky opened defense of its
Southeastern Conference title in a familiar way -- a homecourt win
Kelenna Azubuike, Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels each scored 16
points to lead the Wildcats (No. 5 ESPN/USA Today, No. 7 AP) to a 75-63 victory over
Vanderbilt (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20 AP) on Saturday night.
Kentucky (10-1) committed 23 turnovers but held off a
second-half rally by the Commodores (12-1, 1-1 SEC), who had been
off to the best start in school history.
Kentucky, which went 16-0 in the SEC last season and also won
the league tournament, has not lost to Vanderbilt in 27 games at
Rupp Arena since the facility opened during the 1976-77 season.
The Wildcats have won 16 of their last 17 SEC openers and 22 of
their last 23 games against Vanderbilt.
"Our kids struggled taking care of the ball," Kentucky coach
Tubby Smith said. "But we showed a lot of moxie, a lot of grit, to
not fold, even when things weren't going as well as we would've
hoped. We made some clutch plays."
Vanderbilt, which lost by 62 points at Kentucky last season, cut
a 13-point deficit to 57-55 on Matt Freije's three-point play with
5:52 left, but Kentucky scored 11 of the next 13 points.
A driving, off-balance, left-handed shot by Cliff Hawkins gave
Kentucky a 68-57 lead with 3:24 left, and the Commodores came no
closer than seven points the rest of the way.
"We were able to turn up our defensive pressure and we took
better care of the ball," Smith said.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said the Commodores weren't
intimidated playing at Kentucky despite their lopsided loss last
"What happened last year doesn't impact this game," Stallings
said. "What impacts this game are the 10 guys playing the game. We
have a better team. Better teams play better games.
"You have to play a great game to win here. We did not play a
Azubuike matched his career high in points (set last season
against Vanderbilt) and grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds.
"The sky is the limit for Kelenna," Daniels said.
Daniels, who scored or assisted on Kentucky's first seven
baskets, added seven rebounds and four assists and also was the
primary defender on Freije.
"He just guarded (Freije) really well," Stallings said of
Daniels. "(Daniels) is a good player and he just played him
Fitch matched his career high with six assists as the Wildcats
recorded assists on 20 of their 27 baskets. Hawkins, the point
guard, added 12 points and a career-high seven rebounds for
Kentucky, which shot 54 percent from the field. Kentucky
outrebounded the Commodores 42-23.
Freije, the SEC's preseason player of the year, missed his first
five shots from the field and didn't score until 8 minutes into the
second half. He finished with 13 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
Kentucky led 15-3 and then 27-15 with 5:40 left in the first
half. But the Wildcats' 14 first-half turnovers allowed Vanderbilt
to rally, even though Freije's only shot of the half was an air
ball. Vanderbilt closed the half on a 17-7 run and trailed only
An 8-0 run to open the second half extended Kentucky's lead to
10 points, and Kentucky led 48-35 with 14:40 left.
The game was only the second outside of Nashville this season
for Vanderbilt, which has played 10 home games.
"I'm not second-guessing myself," Stallings said. "We played
hard. We competed. We lost to a team that's going to beat about
anybody they play in here."