Commodores get another shot at No. 1 Kentucky
by Brandon Barca
For the second time in two weeks, Vanderbilt will get another crack at No. 1 Kentucky.
ESPN College GameDay won't be present for the rematch, but the atmosphere will be just as electric with the Wildcats looking to extend their 50-game home winning streak in front of 24,000-plus blue-clad fans.
"It's always intense," said Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings, who holds a 5-5 record against Kentucky in the last 10 meetings. "We've had really competitive games with them. I would think that it will be intense and physical just like the one that was (at Memorial Gym)."
Vanderbilt (20-8, 9-4 SEC) came out flat in the first meeting on Feb. 11, falling behind by 14 points in the first half. The Commodores fought back and regained the lead with 4:08 left in the game, but didn't score again and lost 69-63. Senior center Festus Ezeli attributed the slow start to the excitement surrounding the nationally-televised matchup with the top-ranked Wildcats.
"I think I was a little too pumped up," admitted Ezeli, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds against freshman phenom Anthony Davis. "I struggled in the first half because I was a little too hyper and was thinking about it too much. This time I'm going to work on staying more calm.
"We're excited to see how much better we are since the last time. We didn't play our best basketball in the last four minutes. We're in an upswing right now, playing pretty well. We have to keep it going."
Kentucky (27-1, 13-0) has rolled through its conference schedule but received a scare from Mississippi State Tuesday in Starkville. The Wildcats rallied from a 13-point deficit, their largest of the season, and outscored the Bulldogs 45-23 in the second half to keep their perfect SEC record in tact. Kentucky is trying to become the first team to go undefeated in the league since the school accomplished the feat in 2003.
"I watched their game against Mississippi State," Stallings remarked, "and that second half was about the most impressive thing I've seen in college basketball this year. They were absolutely terrific and really showed why they are the program and the team that they are. There aren't many teams that could have done what they did that night and I was extremely impressed."
The Commodores last victory at Rupp Arena was in 2007, making it the only SEC venue that the senior class hasn't notched a win. Last year, the Dores fell 68-66 in a contest that came down to the final possession. Vanderbilt's 14-8 road mark in the SEC over the last three seasons will be put to the test by one of the loudest crowds in the country.
"There have been a couple times when we played there where I couldn't hear a lot," senior guard Brad Tinsley said. "When they go on a run it gets so loud that it gets very hard to hear (Coach Stallings) on the bench."
Stallings offered the best assessment of the historic venue.
"It's very intimidating to begin with," he said. "There's 24,000 people. (Memorial Gym's) an intimidating place and there's 14,000. So you imagine another 10,000 people in one building, all wearing blue. And that doesn't even begin to talk about their players and how good they are.
"What is so difficult about playing there? Everything."