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January 12, 2006

Live from Lexington: Inside the Kentucky game

Well, what's next? The men's tennis team takes down Illinois in Champaign?

Vanderbilt seems to be on quite a roll when it comes to breaking long streaks. First, the football team beat Tennessee in Knoxville to end their season. Now, the men's basketball team breaks a 34-year Lexington losing streak by defeating Kentucky in Lexington. Not bad for an intramural program...

Rupp Rapture
I'd never been to venerable Rupp Arena, and after getting a taste of Assembly Hall in last year's NIT, I was eager to compare and contrast the two.

Everyone asks me how loud it is, and when you have 24,000 people all yelling at the same time -- let's face it, there's little comparison. The only time I remember Memorial being that loud was when Eddie Fogler's gang humiliated Wade Houston's Vols a decade ago.

That said, I was struck at how austere Rupp is behind the scenes. Really, it's little more than a concrete box. The press facilities are downright spartan, though very well organized.

I must add, however, that the lighting at Rupp is terrific. It was a full two stops brighter there than at Memorial -- which, you will quickly see, makes a big impact on the quality of photos you capture. The images are more often in focus, and the contrast is much greater.

That said, the UK AD makes no bones about their pecking order in the media. The Lexington Herald-Leader must have had their entire sports staff at the game. I counted no less than four LHL photographers on the sidelines, to say nothing of the army of writers they had on press row.

In addition, Getty Images, AP and Reuters have about one-fourth of the entire shooting space at Rupp. Rumor is that Getty, the world's largest stock photography company, actually purchases floor space at major arenas to ensure that their photographers get the best possible shooting angles. That makes it tough on the local news people. Floor space is definitely at a premium.

Kudos to The City Paper, who asked me to shoot for them with one of their credentials. The UK athletics department steadfastly refuses to grant credentials to any dot-com-only media outlet. To my knowledge, they are the only SEC AD to make such a move.

Can't hide the pride
Coach Stallings always goes out of his way to make sure the highs don't get too high, and the lows don't get too low. But you just couldn't get around the elephant in the Black and Gold living room after the big win in Rupp.

"It's not just another win," admitted Coach Tom Richardson, to VandySports.com after the game. "Obviously it's been a long time since Vanderbilt has won here. I've only been here three years, and I feel really happy for the rest of the staff and Kevin and our guys, that they can experience a really big win here."

Coach Stallings beamed with pride at how well his team handled the pressure of playing in front of 24,000 Kentucky fans, to say nothing of the fact that Vanderbilt was playing in front of one of the largest television audiences in recent program history.

"They believed that they could win, they took the floor like they could win, and we played like we could win," said Stallings in his post-game press conference. "Now we could have lost, and if we had, I hope that other than being really really disappointed for our players that I would have been able to go in and tell them that I was I was just as proud of their performance. Because our guys really, really fought hard. And I am real proud of them."

Assistant head coach Jeff Jackson especially loved the excitement and intensity that such a high profile game brings. "It looked like 24,000 people [were here] and I don't think many of them were cheering for the black and gold!," he said to VandySports.com, which brought out a sea of boistrous laughter from those listening in.

"Any time you're trying to climb the mountain and you come in and get wins on the road -- whether it's Kentucky or anyone else in our league -- they are extremely valuable. It gives you a chance to compete for things other than just the day to day activity of the league."

Byars' big shot
After Vanderblt blew its big lead due in large part to the decision to slow the game down, UK took the lead on an emotional slam dunk put-back by Sheray Thomas with 6:49 remaining that brought Rupp to a deafening roar. Even the most loyal Vandy fan had to feel as though the window of opportunity may have passed for Vandy.

But junior Derrick Byars would have none of it. After Julian Terrell sank two free throws, Byars came back into the game at the next break, and immediately sent a 3-point assist to Shan Foster to send Vandy back into the lead for good.

Then, with Vandy up 50-48 with just 1:03 remaining, Byars got a piece of a Moss 3-pointer -- what The City Paper's Brett Hait called the play of the game -- and then caught an outlet pass by Alex Gordon at halfcourt. Byars drove with abandon on a two-on-one break. Instead of pulling the ball back out, Byars launched a perfect 12-foot jumper that found nothing but net. It was a bang-bang series of events that immediately brought Rupp Arena to a deafening silence, and signaled the beginning of the end for UK.

"I might have one of those, 'Oh no/Way to go' feelings but it happened so fast that I didn't have a chance to express it," remarked Stallings. "I was surprised he shot it, because Derrick is not the quick trigger guy on our team, usually. But, he is an awfully good player and he makes huge baskets. He missed some shots tonight that, we were just kind of bufuddled because he makes them.

I asked Jackson how big that shot was, and his response was simple: "Huge! Huge!"

"But there was a lot of huge shots!," he continued. "I thought Shan had a huge one, I thought Derrick had a huge one. How about the play of DeMarre Carroll. I thought a lot of guys brought different pieces to it, [including] Dan Cage at the free throw line."

UK's shooting woes continue
I'd heard much of Kentucky's woeful shooting ability, but you have to see it up close to believe it.

Not only is this a fantastically poor shooting team, the entire roster often appears petrified to even attempt a shot. Patrick Sparks, who became famous (or infamous, depending on your allegiance) for his dead-eye long range touch, is a shell of his former self. Sparks attempted only three shots all night, and the one he hit was an awkward desperation three to beat the shot clock. Many times Sparks would be wide open and not even look at the basket, which brought out frustrated gasps from the UK fans in attendance.

On the night, Kentucky shot 35% from the field. They were just one-of-nine from three in the first half, and finished 5-of-20 from the arc. In fact, if you remove senior walk-on Ravi Moss' 6-of-11 night, the rest of the Kentucky team was just 12-for-40 for the game. From three, Moss was 3-of 4; The rest of the UK team made just one 3-pointer for the entire game.

As a team, Vanderbilt didn't fare any better, hitting just 34% from the field. But VU was 6-of-12 from three, including 4-of-6 for Shan Foster and 2-of-5 for Derrick Byars.

A Charitable Night
As I had pointed out in our preview story, the difference in the game might well end up being at the foul line. On the season, UK had committed nearly 50 more fouls than Vanderbilt had, and Kentucky was the 11th-best free throw shooting team in the SEC. In a close game, that very often spells defeat, and that certainly proved to be correct in the final analysis.

VU was 21-for-25 for the game -- by far the best free throw shooting night of the season. DeMarre' Carroll, who is the worst free throw shooter on the team at 54%, sank all seven of his foul shots...including Vandy's last two game-clinchers.

Conversely, UK's wimpy inside game proved to be their undoing on the foul line. The 'Cats -- playing at Rupp, no less -- attempted just 18 foul shots, and made just 11.

Carpe Faxum
Seize the Fax -- at least that's what one Vandy fan suggested on a sign he hoisted over the UK student section prior to tip off. The good natured jibe brought loud jeers and boos from the crowd, but it served its purpose for many non-UK fans who feel the NCAA demonstrated unprecedented hypocrisy by allowing Randolph Morris to return to UK despite accepting cash from NBA agents last spring.

The big question going into the game was how much impact Morris would have, and the answer came just six minutes into the game. UK head coach Tubby Smith elected to stick with his normal starting lineup, but at the 15:58 mark, already down 8-2, the Wildcats' stagnated offense looked frozen in concrete.

Smith brought in five new players, including Morris, which brought the loudest roar from the Rupp partisans to that point. Morris did his part by getting his first two points of the season just 50 seconds later, on a post feed lay-in over Vandy center Ted Skuchas.

Stallings said Morris' impact was immediate, if uneven. "He wasn't in the game, and it was 10-3, something like that," he said. "We got off to a pretty good start and he wasn't in the game. I don't know if he set the tone or not, but he sure made a huge difference."

It was far from a perfect night for Morris, however. He committed two turnovers, and was often out of position on the boards. But there is no question that Morris can make Kentucky into a formiddable foe this year -- if Tubby can get stellar point guard Rajon Rondo, who leads the team in shots attempted, to share the ball from time to time, although it's hard to blame Rondo the way his teammates shoot.

"Obviously, you can see he helps them score," said junior guard Dan Cage at courtside after the game. "He's a monster down low, big big guy, strong, rebounds, puts the ball in the basket for them. He's a presence down there. He blocks shots, he changes people's shots. He was a tough competitor tonight, and I am sure he's going to get better as the conference schedule goes on."

That Vanderbilt defeated UK at Rupp with Morris playing 28 minutes is remarkable in and of itself. Had UK not gotten Morris back, few in attendance would doubt that Vanderbilt would likely have blown Kentucky out of the arena last night.

"He did a good job and he probably opened up Ravi Moss for some of his shots because we surrounded him pretty good," said assistant coach Tom Richardson to VandySports.com after the game. "The ball got kicked out and Moss hit some big, big shots to get them back into the game and eventually they took the lead."

Richardson said he felt the team was well-prepared to take down the 'Cats. "We had two days of practice, and Kentucky with Randolph coming in, was a little different team," he admitted. "He has to get a feel for what's going on, and they have to get used to playing with him.

"We didn't know if that would help us or hurt us, but we know he's a fine player and he was going to have to get some of our attention on defense."

In attendance...
Conspicuous in their appearances behind the Vanderbilt bench last night were former Vanderbilt student athlete Scott Hundley and his father, as well as current redshirt transfer Ross Nelter and his father. Both Scott and Ross grew up in the state of Kentucky, and made a point to be there to support the Commodores.

I made a point to say hello to Scott before the game. Scott's dad would often sit right behind me at Memorial, and we would share many short conversations during timeouts during Scott's four years at VU. Both of them said they thought this might be the year Vanderbilt broke the streak, and of course, both were thrilled to be there and watch it happen.

"I was confident about [VU's chances]," said Scott to VandySports.com after the game. "I thought they had a good group and were coming off a good win against Auburn. It was time to snap that 28-game winning streak. All the props in the world to the guys. They did a great job busting their butt for 40 minutes."

What was it like to have to live with that 34-game losing streak? "Well...it's going to be okay now," laughed Scott. "I wish we could have gotten one when I was playing, but it's sweet to get one eventually."

His father agreed. "I was just telling some of my friends, I can go out and get my newspaper tomorrow morning and feel good about it! It's such a tough place to play. They are never down, and this team will be back. We just hope that Vanderbilt continues to do well this year."

Ross Neltner, who is sitting out this year after transferring from LSU, had to pay his own way to the game due to NCAA rules. But it was a pittance compared to the thrill of being there for the win.

"I played here one year in high school, my sophomore year," said Ross. "That was exciting, but not nearly as exciting as this was. I came here last year against UK and got beat last year by 30-something points on CBS, so that was a tough loss."

Ross' father would have nothing of the dismissal of this being just like any other win, something Coach Stallings is famous for. "Hell no! It's huge!," he said without a moment's hesitation. "After 34 years, to win one at Kentucky...this was huge!"

Both junior and senior Neltners said Kentucky fans will be quick to put the blame on the UK coaches, and not give due credit to Vanderbilt. "A lot of these people are going to be down on Kentucky and Tubby, but the truth of the matter is Vanderbilt's got a hell of a team this year," said the elder Nelter. "If you look at the stats, Vandy was tough. They out-rebounded, they out-defended them, and they out-shot them. DeMarre' had a strong double double. If you take Ravi Moss out of the equation, they shoot like 10% from behind the arc.

"Any time you win on the road it's great, but especially at Rupp it's big."

Coach Jackson seemed especially proud that the Hundleys and Neltners made a point to be there and to sit behind the Vanderbilt bench. "I think it's great," said Jackson in the hall outside of the media work room after the game. "Any time you build a program you build a family. And your family just grows and grows as time goes on. The fact that Scott has done a nice job and the Hundleys have done a great job staying involved with us.

"Ross is a new member and he comes up here on his own dime to watch it -- it's just neat, and it just talks about ways that maybe just aren't verbal as to what is going on with our family."

As I was waiting for my chance to interview Ross, his dad snuck over, put his arm around my shoulder, and said: "Do you have any idea how hard it was for Ross to sit the bench tonight?" I told him I had a pretty good idea...

Cage came through
Though junior Dan Cage played just eight minutes, it was his final 30 seconds that were among the biggest of the night for both teams. With 31 seconds remaining, and clinging to a 53-50 lead, Coach Stallings elected to substitute Cage for Shan Foster. Five seconds later, Cage was standing at the foul line with the chance to ice the game for Vanderbilt.

Despite having played just 17 seconds previously in the second half, and having not scored a point in the game, Cage stepped to the line and dropped both shots through.

Assistant head coach Jeff Jackson said it wasn't necessarilly their plan for Cage to be the guy who got fouled, but they wanted him in there just in case. "We didn't know he was going to bring the ball down the court, but we wanted him in there in case he got fouled-- and for obvious reasons: He's a great free throw shooter," said Jackson.

"I am a good free throw shooter in practice, and coach has confidence in me," said Dan to VandySports.com after the game. "It was just the regular press break, and I was lucky enough to get the ball on the other side of the floor and they fouled me. Pressure situation -- but it's still just 15 feet, and I was able to knock two in.

"It's always great to play these guys, and I feel it's a real special thing to come up here and win."

Cage said they didn't do anything different to prepare for UK, despite the fact that Vandy had not won in Lexington in more than three decades. "Coach didn't want to put a jinx on anything," he said. "We wanted to come up here and work our hardest at preparing for them. And, we just happened to catch them on a night where we came out ahead, and we're looking forward to seeing them again down in Nashville. We're going to give them our best down there, too.

Carroll brings the wood
There is a fairly long line of deserved credit to hand out to several Vanderbilt players, but none moreso than sophomore DeMarre' Carroll. Carroll played the four for most of the game, with usual four man Terrell moving to the high post in the team's "scissors" set. The result was nothing less than magnificent.

Carroll played 27 hard minutes for Vanderbilt. He was 4-for-9 from the field, including several physical putbacks that jarred would-be UK defenders. Carroll pulled down 11 rebounds, which was a game high for both teams. In fact, 6-foot-10 Randolph Morris lead UK with just seven boards, which even moreso puts 6-foot-7 Carroll's accomplishments in perspective.

DeMarre' was an irrepressable force on the defensive glass. Considering UK's well-chronicled poor shooting touch, Carroll was without a doubt the nail in the Wildcats' coffin time and again. By the middle of the second half, Carroll and Terrell -- who had eight boards -- so dominated the paint that you could hear UK fans yell in frustrated exhasperation when they would crash into the lane and rip down seemingly every missed UK shot.

Less was Moore
Lost in the box scores last night was the fact that Mario Moore contributed no points to the win. In fact, neither Moore nor Alex Gordon made a basket. But the Vanderbilt coaches glowed at how well both of them ran the offense and kept turnovers to a bare minimum.

"We were really happy [with the play of Moore and Gordon]," said Coach Jackson to VandySports.com after the game. "I think they had one turnover between the two. They did a nice job controlling the tempo of the game, getting the ball where it needs to be. If we can get that consistently we have a chance to be successful."

Memorable moment
Having photographed similar big games with close endings, I have learned the hard way that you must be ready for the final buzzer if you hope to get any good photos immediately after the game.

With 18 seconds remaining, and holding a three point lead with the ball, I moved to the area at the end of the Vandy bench. I removed my 200 mm lens, and switched to my wide angle 35 mm, giving me the best chance to get good close-up shots as soon as the buzzer sounded.

I was crouching at the very end of the Vanderbilt bench when DeMarre' Carroll -- the worst foul shooter on the team -- was fouled. As he and the team stepped to the foul line, I readied my camera on the bench for a reaction shot. At that point, I saw and heard something I will never forget.

Stallings stood up, turned to the bench, raised his finger in attention, and said, "Remember how you act when we win."

I turned to the Vandy trainer sitting next to me on the bench in utter awe, and said, "Can you believe that?" Beaming with pride, he simply remarked, "He is awesome!"



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