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Cats didn't just survive -- they prevailed

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Knight.jpegIf not now, when?

If Kentucky didn't win this close game, was it ever going to? The UK men's basketball team finally captured its elusive nail-biting victory, edging Vanderbilt 68-66 on Tuesday Night in the final home game of the season.

It was Kentucky's first victory in seven tries in games decided by five points or less.

"At halftime when I had to call timeout to just get out of the half alive, I told them this is going to be a tough one, (and) we need it," UK head coach John Calipari said. "We need this to be a close game."

Calipari got exactly what he wished for.

UK saw a 15-point first-half lead disappear, only for the Cats to preserve their 34-game home winning streak when Festus Ezeli fumbled the ball out of out bounds as time expired. Vanderbilt had the final crack to either tie or win the game because of a traveling violation called on Terrence Jones with 1.1 seconds left.

It ended up a moot point.

Kentucky hung on for the victory, keeping its hopes alive for the Eastern Division's No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The top two seeds in each division earn a first-round bye in the tournament.

"What a great college game," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said.

And what a great win for Kentucky as it gets ready for postseason play.

Headlines will scream "Kentucky survives" in Wednesday's papers, but those will be an injustice to the mental milestone UK finally achieved. The Cats didn't just survive this game -- they prevailed. They won it.

When Vanderbilt took its first lead of the game with 4:25 left, nightmares of Nashville, Tenn., Gainesville, Fla., and Fayetteville, Ark., quickly arose. And yet UK did not wilt.

The Cats made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 1:36 and came up with key defensive stops with the game on the line.

"The will to win was there," Calipari said.

The will to win was obvious for senior Josh Harrellson. Playing in his final collegiate game in Rupp Arena, Harrellson finished with eight points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals. But it was the final minute of Harrellson's Senior Night that put the ultimate exclamation point on his UK career.

With 24 seconds and Vanderbilt trying to retake the lead, Harrellson, four fouls and all, came up with a clean block on Jeffery Taylor five feet from the basket. Seconds later, after Vanderbilt inbounded the ball, DeAndre Liggins poked the ball away from Ezeli and Harrellson snatched it out of the air.

Finally, with one final chance for Vanderbilt to tie or win the game, Harrellson forced Ezeli to mishandle a lob pass, sealing the game for the Cats.

Harrellson couldn't have scripted it any better himself.

"I just wanted to win my last game at Rupp," Harrellson said. "I was going to do anything that it took to win. I wanted to go out with a bang."

The most encouraging part for UK was who emerged down the stretch. Sure, Calipari has called for his veterans with the game on the line, and a lot of them had a hand in the victory (Harrellson's final 24 seconds, Liggins' poke and Darius Miller's nine second-half points), but it was Kentucky's top two scorers and best playmakers that made the most important buckets.

Knight and Jones made UK's final seven free throws.

"I had two freshmen on national television in a huge game go to the line and make both free throws," Calipari said. "Think about that."

Postgame, Knight didn't need to do much thinking about it. When you can make crucial free throws with 24,000 fans hanging on your every move, you're prepared for the postseason.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to know that we can win in a situation like this as long as we focus and we execute," said Knight, who finished with a team-high 17 points.

Before Tuesday night's win, Calipari wasn't sure who would step up late in games. He'd watched too many near misses over the last two months.

"I'm going to be honest, who do we go to?" Calipari said. "Who do you go to now? How do we get a basket? Who's going to be the guy making the stop?"

Now, with a little "demonstrated performance," there's a confidence that somebody can step up and get the job done. It didn't matter what arena the game was in; getting past the late-game woes was a critical barrier the Cats had to overcome before they officially entered March Madness.

"We didn't hang our heads," Calipari said. "We still executed down the stretch, got the ball where we needed to, got open versus the press, did what we had to do to win the game. And to be honest, at this point in a close game, we're just trying to run off the floor."

They won't strut next time, by any means, but they won't run off the floor either. Now, with one very big win, they'll at least walk a little more confidently.

"We'll expect to win close games," Calipari said.

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