LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Two days after one Kentucky freshman guard quit the team, another led the Wildcats to a victory.
Rajon Rondo scored a career-high 18 points and fueled a late run as No. 9 Kentucky pulled away for a 69-54 victory over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats (11-2, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) remained perfect in 28 games against Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena, dating to the 1976-77 season. Kentucky’s 57.8 percent shooting was by far its best outing of the season.
“As a team we took better shots,” said Kentucky guard Patrick Sparks, who scored 11 points and went 3-of-5 from 3-point range. “It’s a lot easier to hit them when you’re open, instead of forcing them.”
The win followed a tumultuous few days for the Kentucky basketball program, during which the Wildcats lost at home to No. 2 Kansas on Sunday and Joe Crawford left the team on Monday.
“We had a lot on our mind—the loss and Joe,” sophomore forward Sheray Thomas said. “Hopefully the win will take that away.”
Vanderbilt (11-5, 2-1) had a seven-game winning streak snapped. The Commodores, who had made 30 of 57 3-point attempts in their last two games— wins over Alabama and Tennessee—went 9-of-30 from behind the arc against Kentucky.
During the final 6 minutes, Vanderbilt only attempted one 2-point field goal, and they only tried 14 of them the entire game, making eight.
Corey Smith led the Commodores with 16 points.
“Their defense was a lot better than our defense was,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
As they did in the loss to Kansas, the Wildcats began sluggishly against the Commodores. Kentucky managed only one basket during an 8-minute stretch of the first half, allowing Vanderbilt to lead by as many as seven points.
An 11-1 run, capped by a coast-to-coast layup by Rondo, gave the Wildcats a 24-21 lead, and they led 33-30 at halftime.
Kentucky led 49-43 with 7:38 left when Rondo started a 17-3 run by driving the baseline for a layup. He added two more baskets and had two assists during the run.
Rondo—a member of Kentucky’s highly touted freshman class that also included Crawford, Randolph Morris and Ramel Bradley—went 8-of-11 from the field and had four rebounds, four assists and three steals. The 6-foot-1 Rondo even blocked two shots, after having blocked only one in the first 12 games.
Rondo wasn’t available for comment, as Kentucky coach Tubby Smith won’t let the Wildcats’ freshmen speak with the media. But Smith and Rondo’s teammates praised the freshman.
“Rajon is as gifted an athlete as we have,” Smith said. “We asked him to be more aggressive and take the ball as deep has he could.”
Added sophomore Bobby Perry: “He can get by anybody at any time.”
Rondo also made a believer out of Stallings.
“He drove and drove and drove. He’s still driving,” Stallings said.
Kelenna Azubuike scored 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting for Kentucky, and fellow forward Chuck Hayes added 14 points and seven rebounds. In the paint, Kentucky outscored the Commodores 38-14.
About the only negative for Kentucky was its free throw shooting. The Wildcats finished 11-of-21 from the line (52.4 percent).
Kentucky has won its last 18 games after a loss. The Wildcats haven’t lost consecutive games since January 2002.