LEXINGTON, Ky. — The problem when facing a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster is never where lightning might strike next.
Vanderbilt learned that lesson Tuesday night when Kentucky sophomore forward Marcus Lee erupted for six consecutive points early in the second half, helping the top-ranked and undefeated Wildcats to a 65-57 victory at Rupp Arena.
“I can definitely sense sometimes when the team needs it, and I have to do a whole lot more than I usually do,” Lee said. “It’s a tremendous feeling know you can help your teammates when they need it.”
Lee entered the game as Kentucky’s 11th-best scorer at just 2.7 points per game. Against Vanderbilt, Lee had seven points and six rebounds in just 12 minutes. More important, his three-basket surge snapped a 1-for-10 shooting skid by Kentucky and gave the Wildcats their first double-digit lead.
For its part, Vanderbilt (11-7, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) never let Kentucky (18-0, 5-0) put the game out of reach, thanks in large part to freshman guard Riley LaChance. Playing with a clear, protective mask, LaChance scored 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“We came in here to do enough to win but didn’t do it,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “There is really no consolation in doing some good things.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said, “The job Kevin has done with that young team is phenomenal. Against a normal defense, they get off a good shot every time. They are playing exactly how they have to play to win.”
Despite facing the tough opposition, Vanderbilt kept the game close throughout. After cutting the lead to 54-51 with just over four minutes remaining, the Commodores had a chance to tie before a steal by Kentucky junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein led to a fastbreak on which Cauley-Stein buried a 15-foot jumper from the baseline.
Moments later, Vanderbilt again trimmed it to a four-point margin before Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison buried a 3-pointer with 2:02 remaining to make it 61-54. On the next trip, guard Andrew Harrison scored on a layup to seal the victory with a 63-55 lead inside two minutes.
Aaron Harrison finished with a team-high 14 points, all in second half.
“They both played with unbelievable energy,” Calipari said of the Harrison twins. “They were aggressive and attacked. They played smart. They didn’t try to make crazy plays. They made easy plays. But Aaron basically threw dagger after dagger.”
Kentucky only shot 43.5 percent in the eight-point win and was up and down with 13 assists and 13 turnovers.
“What makes them the best team in the country,” Stallings said, “is they can have guys have off nights, they can have a poor shooting night. Their margin for error is quite substantial. They just have weapons.”
Kentucky finished with a small edge in rebounding 33-30, but a huge edge at the foul line. The Wildcats made 21 of 32 free throws, while Vanderbilt finished just six for 12 at the line.
Tuesday night’s game at Rupp Arena began as an illusion of sorts.
Kentucky blocked seven Vanderbilt shots, forced nine turnovers and limited the Commodores to just 38.5 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes yet held just a 33-26 lead at halftime.
Part of the reason was Kentucky’s own sporadic play on offense. Despite shooting a respectable 50 percent, 11 of 22, the Wildcats had eight turnovers and were outrebounded by smaller Vanderbilt, 16-14.
Kentucky used a balanced attack to build the seven-point advantage as nine of 10 players scored. Non-starters Dakari Johnson, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles led the way with eight, six and five points, respectively.
Vanderbilt was paced by LaChance with eight first-half points.
NOTES: Tuesday’s game against Vanderbilt was the 100th at Rupp Arena for Kentucky coach John Calipari. He is now 96-4, best among all Kentucky coaches for their first 100 home games … Through 17 games, Kentucky’s defense held opponents under 20 points in 13 of 34 halves of basketball, 38.2 percent. Vanderbilt topped 20 points in both halves Tuesday. … Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp are two of just five SEC coaches to win 300 games or more at one institution.
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