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March 16, 2013NASHVILLE, Tenn. - John Calipari finally went zone.
Feeling desperate, facing a 21-point deficit with 16:21 to go in Kentucky's Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal game Friday against Vanderbilt, Calipari shifted his team from their customary man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone.
"We had no choice," Calipari said.
It worked. Vanderbilt missed a jumper, committed a turnover, missed a three-pointer, committed another turnover, and missed another three-pointer in its next five possessions.
During that stretch, Kentucky pieced together 10 straight points, whittling the lead to 11 with 12:46 to play. The run was capped by a thunderous Archie Goodwin dunk, after which Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called a timeout.
Exiting the huddle, Calipari went back to a man-to-man defense.
Vanderbilt promptly made a layup.
Calipari switched back to a zone.
Vanderbilt made a three-pointer.
"The zone was good," Calipari said. "We had our chances. It got to 11 and then we broke down two or three straight times."
The run, fueled by the zone, was one only a few chances UK had at mounting a comeback in what ended up as a 64-48 loss.
"It slowed them down," forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "The zone was really good for us. I almost think we should have done that earlier, just to see what it would be like. It would have maybe slowed it down a lot earlier for us to make a better run instead of making a late run."
Kentucky also missed a chance later in the game to make one final push. As the Cats' defense shut down Vanderbilt for two minutes and 43 seconds in the middle of the second half, they had 14 potential points on the offensive end: Two one-and-ones by Alex Poythress and Cauley-Stein, a layup and a jumper by Ryan Harrow, and two three-pointers by Julius Mays.
UK scored zero points in that stretch.
"All we needed to do is try to get it to 6, 7, 8 points and see what would happen," Calipari said. "We never - it was - we were stabbing ourselves in the eye in most cases."
In perhaps a do-or-die game, UK's defense collapsed.
Kentucky had allowed its opponent to make at least half its shots only twice in the regular season (at Tennessee, 58 percent; Texas A&M, 52.5 percent).
Vanderbilt made exactly half of its shots. It was only the fifth time all year the Commodores shot 50 percent or better (Cornell, UTEP, Alabama A&M, Arkansas).
Overall, Vanderbilt scored 1.28 points per possession, its second-highest mark of the entire season (1.29, Mississippi State) and the third-worst mark UK has allowed (1.38, at Tennessee; 1.34, Texas A&M).
"We gave them a lot of open threes and we gave them a lot of easy lanes to the basket," Goodwin said, "and so when you do - when you're giving them that and giving them those many high-percentage shots, and on top of that, nothing is going down for you, it's a compounded problem and there's no way that you can win that way."
It also prevented UK from making any type of sustained run.
"It's very frustrating," Goodwin said. "We scored when we needed to. We just kept letting them score."
Kentucky's defense was strained by first-half foul trouble for Cauley-Stein. He picked up his second foul with 4:53 to play.
Vanderbilt didn't miss a shot the remainder of the half, hitting six free throws, one layup, one jumper and two 3-pointers. During that time, its lead swelled from six to 14 at the half.
"It's really damaging," Cauley-Stein said. "Coaches preach for me not to get in foul trouble, and, you know, I start playing overly aggressive and try to block every shot and end up getting myself in foul trouble."
Rupp Arena South
Playing in its home city, Vanderbilt fans were vastly outnumbered by Kentucky fans at the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
"It didn't feel like a home game," Stallings said. "I don't know if you noticed out there."
At least 80 percent of the 18,192 fans at Bridgestone Arena were dressed in blue and white the game, and the atmosphere made it feel like a transplanted Rupp Arena at times.
"The 'Go Big Blue' thing sounded a little louder to me than some of the stuff our fans had going," Stallings said.
Vanderbilt forward Rod Odom said he "knew from last year" that there would be a blue tinge to the crowd, but said it "made the environment more fun for us."
And as it became clear Vanderbilt would be the happier set of fans, the audio levels adjusted accordingly.
"It was really fun just to like hear that crowd, hear all those people like not say a word," Vanderbilt guard Kyle Fuller said. "All you could hear is our Vandy fans."