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By Nick Gray | Basketball beat writer
Traveling to Memorial Gym for a game has been a recent chore for UK.
Since John Calipari became head coach, the Cats had never beaten a Vanderbilt University squad by more than six points. On Saturday, against an out-numbered Commodores team, the Cats achieved their largest margin of victory at Memorial Gym.
The Cats won, 71-62, against a Vanderbilt team who had seven scholarship players after a recent suspension and nine players who warmed up before the game.
Calipari was happy to get out of Nashville with his improving team getting a win.
“We’re getting better,” Calipari said. “(Freshman guard) Andrew Harrison is finally starting to get it.”
Harrison made three-of-seven field goals, but grabbed eight rebounds and dished out a team-high four assists. Calipari lauded his ability to navigate the zone defense.
“What he did is what I was asking him to do,” Calipari said. “‘Get rid of the ball. Get us running, and when you get it back, attack. Do not hold the ball. Don’t be a ball stopper.’”
Sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein was the most efficient Cats player, scoring 15 points on seven-of-nine shooting. The 7-foot forward from Olathe, Kan., came to the same conclusion minutes before his coach did.
“The last couple of days we’ve been getting closer, basketball wise, in practice, and in the game. It showed,” Cauley-Stein said before Calipari arrived at the interview room. “We have these things called hustle points, and I think both (halves) were in the high 50s. When it’s in the low 30s, we are usually down at halftime or it’s a one point game.”
Vanderbilt started the game in a man-to-man defense, and UK scored 10 points before six minutes ticked off the clock. Once the Commodores shifted to the zone defense that teams have shown the Cats throughout the year, UK hit two field goals from the 14-minute mark to the six-minute mark in the first half.
Calipari inserted senior guard Jarrod Polson with 7:34 left in the first half, a move that paid dividends. Polson hit two three-pointers in the final three minutes of the first half, which helped UK to a 30-22 halftime advantage.
UK continued to battle inside against the Commodores zone defense and found success in the second half through Cauley-Stein and a flurry of baskets behind the arc. Cauley-Stein’s jumper pushed a Cats lead, that was down to five at one point, to 10 points with 12:36 left.
Freshmen guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison hit three-point baskets on back-to-back possessions to push the lead further, and Cauley-Stein’s layup gave UK its largest lead at 55-41.
After a wave of threes by Vanderbilt cut the lead to single digits again, a lob from Aaron Harrison to Cauley-Stein extended the Cats lead to 67-58 with less than 90 seconds left. The following UK possession, sophomore forward Alex Poythress grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a layup to push the lead to 70-60 with under a minute remaining.
Freshman forward Julius Randle briefly went into the locker room to get treated for cramps in the second half before returning later in the game. Randle grabbed 11 rebounds in the first half, but recorded no rebounds and one point in the final 20 minutes.
The freshman forward also suffered cramps on Dec. 28 against the University of Louisville in the second half and did not play the final 11 minutes against the Cardinals. Calipari was not worried about Randle’s cramps, though he said Randle was taking a lot of physical play inside in games.
UK out-rebounded Vanderbilt 41-28, though the two teams grabbed the same number of rebounds. The difference came in offensive rebounding, where the Cats, the fourth best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbed 18 rebounds to the Commodores’ five.