No. 6 Kentucky 84, Vanderbilt 70
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tubby Smith didn’t need to worry about how his sixth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats would react to having a week off.
Patrick Sparks, Kelenna Azubuike and Chuck Hayes each scored 15 points, and No. 6 Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 84-70 Saturday for its eighth straight victory.
“I was concerned about how we would respond after a week off,” Smith said of a team that hadn’t played since edging Arkansas 68-67 last week.
“The early lead gave us confidence, and we were able to maintain the lead. A few of our shots at the end of the shot clock that we made sort of takes the wind out of your opponents’ sails and gave us a great lift.”
Kentucky (17-2, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) swept the season series between the teams and now has beaten Vanderbilt in 24 of the last 26 games. The Wildcats also have won 17 straight SEC games, counting last year’s postseason.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for the Commodores (13-9, 4-5), who had won 27 of their previous 30 at home over the last two seasons.
Hayes had a team-high 13 rebounds, and Rajon Rondo added 12 points for Kentucky, which is off to its best start since the 1998 NCAA title team began the season 19-2. Smith said Hayes is becoming more comfortable playing with a mask to protect the nose he broke at Tennessee on Jan. 25.
The Wildcats also noticed.
“I’m glad to see that Chuck is getting his stroke back,” Kentucky forward Bobby Perry said. “He played great in the mask for us today. He wasn’t going to let the mask hold him down. Chuck was also big on the boards today. As a team, we have to follow Chuck’s leadership.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings thought the Wildcats played their best first half of the season.
“Somebody might beat them, but it will take a heck of an effort. They have a few weaknesses, but we are not good enough to expose them,” Stallings said.
Corey Smith led Vanderbilt with 16 points, Mario Moore had 15 in a reserve role, and Dawid Przybyszewski and DeMarre Carroll each had 12.
Kentucky took control from the beginning by scoring the first nine points. Vanderbilt missed its first four shots and didn’t get on the board until Przybyszewski’s 3-pointer five minutes into the game.
By then, it was too late.
The Wildcats led 46-29 at halftime after Azubuike hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. They led by as much as 71-47 midway through the second half. Vandy managed to get within 10 twice in the final minute, but it was too late.
The Commodores outrebounded Kentucky 37-33 and shot the ball about as well as the Wildcats (25-of-51 compared to 31-of-63). But they were only 8-of-26 from 3-point range, and Kentucky turned its 19 turnovers into 30 points.
“We wanted to keep pressuring on defense and make them work to get a shot,” Smith said. “I wanted to defend the backdoor cut. We had a week to work on that, and we were very good at that today.”
Vanderbilt hit five of its first six shots in the second half and used a 9-2 spurt to pull within 54-42 on a free throw by Jason Holwerda with 16:21 left. But Sparks helped Kentucky put the game out of reach.
Sparks first hit a 3-pointer. Smith answered with a 3, then Sparks scored on a layup. Hayes made a 3-pointer, then Sparks followed up with his own 3 and a layup. He stole the ball, and Ravi Moss scored on a layup that capped a 17-5 run for the 71-47 lead.
Smith wasn’t happy with how the Wildcats eased up in the final four minutes. Azubuike agreed that marred a game that might be their best yet this season.
“Luckily we were ahead by enough points at that time,” Azubuike said. “We have to come out every road game and play with the same intensity as we do at home. Every team gives us their best shot.”