NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Derrick Byars has been building his case for Southeastern Conference player of the year throughout league play. His performance against Kentucky may boost him above the pack.
Byars hit the first of two free throws, got the rebound and hit an 8-foot jumper that gave No. 17 Vanderbilt its first lead, and the Commodores held off Kentucky for a 67-65 victory Sunday.
“It was the biggest play of the game,” Byars said. “I missed a free throw, and (teammate) Dan Cage tapped it out to me. I saw (Kentucky’s) Randolph (Morris) down there, and he beat me earlier, so I just wanted to get it up quick.”
That sequence capped a 21-point second-half performance for Byars, who responded to a halftime talk from coach Kevin Stallings.
“We kind of challenged Derrick at halftime,” Stallings said of his senior who had hit just 2 of 8 shots in the first half. “We didn’t think he had one of his better first halves. I want to try and remember exactly what I said, because he was pretty spectacular in the second half.”
With the victory, the Commodores moved into sole possession of second place and hold the tiebreaker over the Wildcats for the Eastern Division’s No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament by virtue of a season sweep.
Byars finished with 26 points, and Shan Foster added 21 as the Commodores (19-9, 9-5) erased a 10-point second-half deficit. They didn’t lead until Byars went to the free-throw line with 29 seconds left.
On the next possession, the Wildcats’ Sheray Thomas lost control of the ball, and the Commodores came up with it. Kentucky (19-9, 8-6) fouled Foster, who missed the first free throw and made the second.
The Wildcats called timeout and got the ball to point guard Ramel Bradley, closely guarded by Byars.
Bradley drove the lane, was triple-teamed and threw up a shot that missed. Time expired in the scramble for the ball.
“We were just trying to get the ball inside, get a good shot, maybe get fouled taking the ball to the basket,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.
Bobby Perry led Kentucky with 18 points, and Jodie Meeks added 15 as the Wildcats outshot Vanderbilt 58 percent to 41 percent. But the Commodores scored 20 points off Kentucky’s 22 turnovers.
“It’s just very disappointing when you can’t make the plays down the stretch, don’t get stops like you should, and you don’t value the basketball,” Smith said. “The turnovers really hurt us.”
Perry scored 11 first-half points in leading the Wildcats to a 32-23 lead at the break.
This was a rare fourth consecutive win by Vanderbilt over Kentucky and matched the Commodores’ four-game winning streak of the 1972-73 and 1973-74 seasons.
Stallings believes his team is building momentum as tournament time approaches.
“A lot of teams are fighting to get into the tournament, and playing their best basketball. To know you can get it done at the end does wonders for your confidence,” Stallings said.
“I looked at the clock with four minutes left, and even with the game being as close as it was, there was no doubt on our team that we were going to win.”
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