Top-ranked Kentucky beats No. 21 Vanderbilt 85-72
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—LeBron James turned out to be a better good-luck charm than the president for No. 1 Kentucky.
With the NBA superstar—a good friend of coach John Calipari’s—watching from the front row, the Wildcats bounced back from an upset loss to South Carolina with an 85-72 victory over No. 21 Vanderbilt.
Calipari secretly hoped James would get caught up in the snowstorm that blanketed the region early Saturday. It’s not that he didn’t want James at Rupp Arena, Calipari was simply fearful his team would get caught trying to impress one of the world’s most recognized athletes.
“I ran into him in the hallway at halftime,” Calipari said. “I was worried he was coming. I thought it might be another distraction.”
Calipari had good reason to be concerned.
The Wildcats didn’t do so well on Tuesday after receiving a highly publicized phone call from president Barack Obama as a thank you for helping raise over $1 million in relief for earthquake ravaged Haiti. A few hours later Kentucky’s 19-game winning streak was snapped by the upstart Gamecocks.
Calipari didn’t blame the loss on the phone call, but acknowledged it was simply part of a combustible mix that led the Wildcats to getting a little too full of themselves.
There were no such problems against Vanderbilt.
DeMarcus Cousins posted his 12th double-double—the most every by a Kentucky freshman—with 21 points and 10 rebounds to lead a balanced attack as the Wildcats (20-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) served notice to the Commodores (16-4, 5-1) that they remain the team to beat in the SEC.
“We’ve got a ways to go,” Calipari said. “We beat a good team. We’re getting balance.”
And they’re getting consistent effort from Cousins, who shrugged when asked if he was nervous about playing in front of James. Having James in the stands is nothing new for the freshman big man, who said James was a regular at several summer camps Cousins attended during his high school days.
“He was always around. I’m used to seeing him,” Cousins said.
And James might get used to seeing Cousins in the NBA sooner rather than later if Cousins can continue his precocious play.
Cousins almost single-handedly gave Kentucky an early double-digit lead—he converted four three-point plays in the game’s first eight minutes—and did his best to stay composed despite Vanderbilt’s best efforts to rattle him.
“He is really quickly becoming a dominant inside player, maybe the best dominant inside player in our league,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. “We were trying to double-team him and we told our players what he would do when he was double-teamed, and he did.”
When the Commodores tried to throw two or more bodies at Cousins, he would spin toward the baseline for an easy basket or kick it outside to an open teammate for a jumper—the latest facet in his quickly developing game.
And there were good looks aplenty for the Wildcats, who made 12 of 23 3-point attempts and dominated the boards, outrebounding Vanderbilt 41-22, leading to 20 second-chance points.
Darnell Dodson had 16 points in just his second start of the season. Eric Bledsoe had 13 points and seven rebounds while Patrick Patterson chipped in 12 points.
Kentucky’s supremacy in the lane helped make up for a less than spectacular performance from freshman star John Wall.
The point guard finished with 13 points, nine assists and seven turnovers in 34 minutes. He shot just 4 of 12 from the field as the Commodores did a fantastic job of keeping Wall from getting out in transition. The Wildcats failed to score a fast break basket for the first time in memory.
“The last two weeks I haven’t been playing well, I haven’t been having fun,” said Wall. “I’ve kind of been frustrated with everything. I’ve got to figure it out.”
He’d like to do it while the Wildcats are winning. And perhaps their ability to snap Vanderbilt’s 10-game winning streak without relying too heavily on Wall is a good sign of the team’s maturity.
“We’re getting balance,” Calipari said.
Jermaine Beal led the Commodores with 19 points, but Vanderbilt couldn’t pull off its second road upset of the week in a physical, whistle-plagued game that featured 58 fouls and very little flow.
“On the backboards, there were times we really fought and still lost,” Stallings said. “There were times when we probably didn’t fight like we needed to fight.”
Kentucky’s defense held Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy to 12 points on just 2 of 4 shooting, though he did make 8 of 12 free throws.
“I don’t think we would have been so disappointed if we didn’t play so poorly,” Ogilvy said. “Mainly we were all disappointed in our effort. We weren’t strong inside. We lacked in rebounding.”
The Commodores, who won on the road at No. 14 Tennessee on Wednesday, fell to 7-15 all-time against the No. 1 team. Nearly half of those losses have come at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats will likely fall from the top spot when the new poll comes out Monday, but avoided a precipitous drop by keeping the Commodores comfortably at bay after building an early 19-point lead.