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At Calipari's urging, Cats beginning to 'love the road'

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Kentucky ran its winning streak to 17 games with a 69-63 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky ran its winning streak to 17 games with a 69-63 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kentucky's first experience in an away game was one they would rather forget.

A raucous crowd helped Indiana hand the Wildcats their only loss this season and they unquestionably did not enjoy leaving the floor amid a swarming celebration of Christian Watford's 3-point buzzer.

Two months later, UK is feeling differently about leaving the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

"There's nothing better than playing on the road, especially an environment like this," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "Playing on the road in these types of games is going to make us a better team."

The environment of which Davis spoke of was Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium. It's difficult to imagine any venue matching IU's Assembly Hall, but the Commodore fans hosting ESPN's College GameDay did their best.

"Hats off to them, their fans," John Calipari said. "What a great environment. This is why we do what we do as coaches and players is this kind of game."

Calipari has been trying to drill that kind of mentality into his young team, the mentality that there's no sweeter sound than the hush that comes over a big crowd after a big play is made by the team those fans are loudly cheering against.

"It's a great environment, but it's what you want," Calipari said. "What I put on the board before we started the game: Love the road. Just love this. Love the environment. Relish this. Keep this in your mind. When you're 40 you'll think about playing this game."

Unlike Indiana, the Cats will look back fondly when they remember this road trip.

No. 1 Kentucky (25-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) won its sixth straight on the road in a 69-63 victory over Vanderbilt (17-8, 6-4 SEC). UK strengthened its grip in an SEC race losing suspense by the day, moving a full three games ahead of second-place Florida in the loss column.

Kentucky led by as many as 14 points during a suffocating first-half performance, guided by the now-steady hand of point guard Marquis Teague. The freshman had eight points, five assists and three rebounds at halftime en route to a 13-point, eight-assist, one-turnover outing that dealt another blow to the narrative that Teague is the weak link on an otherwise dominant team.

"I'm feeling real comfortable," Teague said. "I'm playing with some great guys and they make it easy for me. I give them the ball and they knock down shots so they make it real easy for me. I'm just trying to pick and choose when to go and when to find somebody else. I'm trying to control the tempo and just keep getting wins."

Over his last six games, Teague has 36 assists and 11 turnovers.

Teague and the Cats may have knocked down to the Commodores in the first half, but Vanderbilt counterpunched, hitting 12-of-16 field goals to open the second half after shooting just 27.6 percent in the first. Vandy tied the game at 51 with 10:13 remaining, triggering back-and-forth action up to the 4:10 mark, when UK trailed 63-61.

At that point, UK's focus was unmistakable.

"We just told each other in every huddle that we had that we were going to lock up defensively," Davis said. "We needed a stop and the only way we were going to win was to lock up and that's what we tried to do."

From then on, the Commodores scarcely had room to breathe.

UK would miss three free throws in the final minute, but they proved to be inconsequential because of the defense the Wildcats played. The Commodores' final nine shots went awry as Kentucky closed the game on an 8-0 run to make last season's 2-6 road record an even more distant memory.

"This year we just know how to close out games really," sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. "We got a lot of great players and we got a lot of weapons on this team that can score and defend. Last year we just broke down at the end of games and didn't close the game out."

His stat line (five points, two rebounds and two assists) may not jump off the page, but Darius Miller was arguably the most important factor in the Cats slamming the door down the stretch. He picked up his fourth foul with 17:56 left, but his crucial 3-point shot with 10:40 remaining and his consistent penetration opened things up for UK against Vandy's 2-3 zone defense that befuddled the Cats after halftime.

"It's a senior leader," Lamb said. "He's been doing this for four years. He knows this game and makes big plays for us. That's what we need from him."

Calipari would have preferred another blowout win over needing big plays from Miller and defensive stops down the stretch to eke one out. At the same time, Saturday night's tight victory can't hurt for the future.

"We needed a game where we had to fight," Teague said. "We've been beating people by 20 and 15 and things like that and this was a good game for us to build up on our experience and just to get us ready."

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