7:00 PM ET, January 10, 2004
Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Kentucky opened defense of its Southeastern Conference title in a familiar way -- a homecourt win over Vanderbilt.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 season."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 great game."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 tough."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.Mario Moore and Scott Hundley each scored 15 points for Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 5-of-23 from 3-point range (21.7 percent), 15 percent lower than their season average.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 34-32.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."