Cats hold on, edge Vanderbilt 60-58

By David Schuh | @dschuhkernel

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — UK head coach John Calipari and Cats fans alike have patiently waited for the day when freshman centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein affect a game defensively in a way that their size indicates they could.

That day came Thursday, as the big men did just enough to help the Cats to a 60-58 win over Vanderbilt in its SEC opener.

The 3-point shot plagued UK’s offense for most of the night, as the Cats shot just 3-17 from behind the arc. Their defense of the shot in the first half, however, gave them a 35-24 halftime lead, holding the Commodores to 2-13 from long range midway through.

Ironically, it was that same 3-point shot that got the home team back in it. Vanderbilt made six 3-pointers in the second half, while still looking timid anytime it entered the paint against Calipari’s big lineup.

Coming out from halftime, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings went to a zone defense, and he almost immediately saw results.

UK was no longer able to utilize its size advantage against the zone and, combined with poor outside shooting, went cold.

Stallings saw his team surge to an 18-0 run for an eight-minute stretch that gave Vandy the lead with under six minutes to play.

“On a lot of the plays, Nerlens didn’t know which play we were running because it was so loud,” sophomore guard Ryan Harrow said. “That was the biggest thing.”

The Cats responded, though, holding a three-point lead with just under 20 seconds to play. That lead was extended to five when, at the end of the shot clock, Noel put up a floater that went in, but appeared to be late. While the replay showed it was after the horn, the basket stood.

“Oh, that was good,” Harrow said with a smile after the game, in between gasps for breath from a late-game elbow to the ribs.

The home crowd, and its coach, felt much differently.

“I don’t want to spin this press conference talking about a call,” Stallings said. “Judging by my reaction, you could tell what I thought.”

As a result, a Commodore 3-pointer on the next possession cut the lead to two, rather than tie the game.

UK turned the ball over on the ensuing inbound play, giving Vanderbilt one last chance for the upset. But Kedren Johnson missed a desperation 25-footer at the buzzer, and the Cats escaped.

“They outworked us,” Calipari said. “We were lucky to win the game. But, I’m happy we won.”

Noel and Cauley-Stein combined for 20 points and 15 rebounds, but it was their defensive presence that made the difference.

Vanderbilt shot just 15-40 on two-point shots. While its big run in the second half was largely fueled by the deep shot, it failed to generate much more than that, and ultimately fell one 3-pointer short.

Harrow continued his solid play, tallying 16 points, four assists and two turnovers. It was his fourth straight game with at least 15 points and four assists.

UK’s focus will now have to quickly shift to 4 p.m. Saturday, when it hosts Texas A&M at Rupp Arena.

It will be a quick turnaround, but after their first taste of conference play, the young Cats can approach the Aggies with a good idea of what they will now be up against on a weekly basis.

“We didn’t respond like we were supposed to,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’ve got to change that. Every SEC game is going to be like that from here on out.”