By David Dawson
NASHVILLE -- Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb doesn't believe in moral victories. Still, she saw plenty of encouraging developments during her team's 82-68 loss to No. 11/12 Kentucky at Memorial Gym.
Fueled by a season-high 20 points from Rebekah Dahlman, Vanderbilt (13-11, 4-7) stayed within striking distance of the Wildcats (18-5, 7-3) for much of the way. The Commodores trailed 32-31 at the half and were down only 62-56 after a pair of free throws by Marqu'es Webb with 8:29 left in the game. Kentucky, however, pulled away down the stretch, using a continual string of free throws to fend off Vanderbilt while closing the game on a 20-12 run.
Kentucky's Linnae Harper finished with a game-high 22 points for the Wildcats, who stretched their winning streak in the series to eight games. Makayla Epps added 18 points, including 13 in the first half.
Morgan Batey and Heather Bowe scored 12 each for Vanderbilt, and freshman Rachel Bell had eight points and a team-high six rebounds.
Balcomb said she saw maturity from her young team, even if they didn't get the desired result on the scoreboard. She said the loss was "tough" but said the Commodores, who don't have any seniors on the roster, are "a better team than we were last game."
"We're building, we're growing, and we're getting better," Balcomb said. "(Kentucky was) just a better team tonight, and they are a better basketball team (in general). We're just not to that point yet where we are good enough to beat a team that is that good."
The Wildcats -- who entered the day ranked No. 2 in the nation in free throws attempted per game (28) -- converted 21-of-23 at the foul line, including going 19-of-20 in the second half.
"Down the stretch, we fouled them so much," said Balcomb. "That was because they were the aggressor, and they were getting to the free throw line."
Vanderbilt owned a 19-12 lead at the 12:34 mark of the first half after putting together a 12-2 run that featured baskets by five different players. But the Wildcats answered back with a 15-6 spurt to grab a 27-25 lead on a layup by Epps with 7:15 to play in the half. Vanderbilt never led again, although the Commodores tied the score on two occasions in the final 3:04 of the half.
Kentucky appeared to be pulling away near the midway mark of the second half when the Wildcats built a 54-45 lead after a basket by Harper. But Dahlman brought Vanderbilt back by hitting back-to-back 3-pointers, trimming the Wildcats' lead to 54-51 with 10:41 to go.
Kentucky, however, made the necessary plays down the stretch, with Harper and Bria Goss (who finished with 13 points) doing much of work.
"We were talking in the locker room (after the game) about Linnae Harper; she is a great player," said Bowe. "She got five offensive boards in the last 12 minutes, and that really gave them a spark. With them breaking our press and just attacking us you could tell that they wanted it and they were more physical at the end then they had been."
Although the final score does not indicate it, the stat sheet reflects an evenly-played matchup. Kentucky shot 43.9 percent from the floor, and Vanderbilt shot 43.6. The Wildcats were 3-of-10 from 3-point range (30 percent) and the Commodores were 4-of-13 (30.8 percent). Kentucky finished with only a slight edge in rebounding (38-35).
But the difference came in the paint, where the Wildcats outscored Vanderbilt 44-28.
Kentucky star Jennifer O'Neal, who came into the day tied for second in the SEC in scoring at 15 points per game, endured a tough afternoon. She finished with 12 points, but was just 3-of-16 from the floor, including 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
Vanderbilt now has a week off before traveling to South Carolina next Sunday to face the No. 1-ranked Gamecocks.