The skinny: This was a game in which Kentucky was supposed to get in and get out against a struggling Vanderbilt team, at least on paper. The first half gave credence to that belief, but the second stanza was far from what UK hoped for. In the matchup between last year's Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament champions, almost completely different rosters took the floor on Thursday night. The Wildcats got key contributions once again from point guard Ryan Harrow, who led the team in scoring with 16 points. The interior tandem of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein also provided some offense with 13 and 7 points respectively. Archie Goodwin gave UK a spark with 12 points and five rebounds. After a poor shooting effort in the first half for Vanderbilt, the Commodores came back with a vengeance on the strength of an 18-0 that erased UK's 16-point lead and gave Vandy its first lead. Kentucky held the Commodores off even though the Cats relinquished the lead. With a three-point lead, Noel got a basket to the Cats up by five as the shot clock expired. Vanderbilt came down and hit a 3 with seven seconds to go to make it a two-point game. After a Kentucky turnover under the opponent's basket, Vanderbilt had one last opportunity to tie or win the game, but the last second heave missed the mark and UK held on to win 60-58.
The difference: The free-throw line. Though Kentucky shot just 60 percent (9-15) from the free throw line Thursday, Vanderbilt was worse. They took their second-worst free throw percentage in Division I and went 4-8 from the charity stripe. Alex Poythress, in his return to his home state of Tennessee, went 3-4 from the line while Harrow hit both of his attempts. Cauley-Stein continues to work on his free-throw stroke, going 1-3 at the line, while Noel was 1-2.
Player of the game: Ryan Harrow. The sophomore point guard continues to make strides in his game and he was a big reason for UK's early offensive success in the first half. He notched 11 first-half points and earned his fifth consecutive game with double-digit points. Harrow took 13 shots, hitting six including two big 3s. His first came on Kentucky's first score of the game to give UK a 3-0 lead. The second was a much more crucial basket coming late in the second half to break UK's nine-minute scoring drought. In 36 minutes, he registered four rebounds, four assists and a steal while turning the ball over just twice.
Turning point: Kyle Wiltjer didn't have his best night in a Kentucky basketball uniform. He was a defensive liability for most of the night, he struggled to rebound and he had trouble making shots from the perimeter. Late in the second half, as it appeared that Vanderbilt had gained all of the momentum, Wiltjer found a soft spot in Vanderbilt's zone, just above the elbow, and hit a jumper that broke a 54-54 tie with 1:58 left in the game. Vanderbilt had taken its first lead of the game at 49-47, and UK and VU saw two different ties before Wiltjer's jumper gave the Wildcats the lead. After Wiltjer helped UK regain the lead, the Wildcats never trailed the rest of the way, though the Commodores came dangerously close to pulling off the upset at home on the final possession of the game.
Key stats: Rebounding and bench points. Vanderbilt got back into the game in a hurry with their hot 3-point shooting in the second half, but it was rebounding that provided best opportunity to hang around. The Cats must have felt like they were playing against Maryland again as the Commodores owned the offensive boards. Vanderbilt managed 20 offensive rebounds compared to 22 defensive rebounds as they outrebounded Kentucky 42-37. Kentucky, a much longer and more athletic team, managed just nine offensive rebounds compared to 28 defensive rebounds. Kentucky also suffered with its production from the bench. The Cats got just five points from their reserves: Wiltjer's jumper to give UK a late two-point lead and a 3 from Julius Mays. Vanderbilt got 21 points off the bench to help with their offensive attack including 9-21 from the three-point line. Regardless, Kentucky was able to pull off the win despite its deficiencies.
Unsung hero: Willie Cauley-Stein. The other half of the twin towers along with Nerlens Noel gave UK a Noel-type effort. Cauley-Stein stuffed the stat sheet with a complete game. Though he scored just seven points, he grabbed eight rebounds, dished out four assists, swatted four shots and picked up two steals. It was one of Cauley-Stein's most impressive all-around efforts of the season and the Wildcats don't own the paint defensively without his efforts.
He said what?: "They outworked us. They beat us to 50-50 balls, they beat us to rebounds. We were lucky to win the game." - John Calipari
What this one means: Kentucky is 1-0 in the Southeastern Conference with a win at one of the most difficult venues on visiting teams in the conference. It's clear that Kentucky has some things it needs to clean up, particularly zone offense, but John Calipari and co. will be happy to leave Nashville, Tenn. with a win. Calipari knew that Vanderbilt's best opportunity to hang in the game was if the Commodores hit enough 3s. They almost did even after a horrendous shooting start from beyond the arc. The Wildcats will need more contributions from their bench the rest of the way to win games in the conference, but this was a game that they had clear control of until they decided to allow Vanderbilt to hang around. Still, Kentucky was resilient enough to hold the Commodores off and come away with a win. Texas A&M comes in for its first game at Rupp Arena since joining the SEC on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m.