NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kedren Johnson says Kentucky-Vanderbilt is really not a rivalry, but the Vandy sophomore says the games are always fun.
“It’s just a good environment for basketball. Even before I¿got here, the fans got into it,” said Johnson after scoring 13 points Thursday to help the Commodores beat Arkansas 75-72 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and advance to tonight’s quarterfinal game against Kentucky.
The fans likely will be into the game again but it will be Kentucky fans packing Bridgestone Arena to see if the Cats can beat Vanderbilt for a third time this season.¿Of course, last year UK fans dominated attendance in New Orleans when Vanderbilt stunned UK¿in the SEC title game before the Cats went on to win the NCAA title.
“If there are 20,000 Kentucky fans, we have played in front of 24,000 (in Rupp Arena),” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “The atmosphere will not bother us. Kentucky’s players will. We are not going to worry about the fans. Our guys will compete. They are not afraid. I think we are playing our best basketball of the season.
“We just have to play to win. I don’t think Kentucky has to beat us to get in the (NCAA) tourney. I think personally they are a tourney team. But it will be a fun game.”
Stallings said perhaps his players don’t even understand why Kentucky is always the team to beat.
“Kentucky has earned the right to be everybody’s rival. I am jealous of that. They get everybody’s best shot because their program has been better,” Stallings said. “Everybody wants to beat Kentucky.”
Vanderbilt (15-16), which has won seven of its last 10 games, has been solid defensively all season and has allowed just 60 points per game. Johnson, a sophomore guard, is the SEC’s most improved scorer, going from 3.1 points per game last year to 13.7 per game this year. He has 35 points in two games against UK this year, but was just 12-for-29 from the field against UK.
Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 60-58 Jan. 10 in Nashville when Ryan Harrow had 16 points and four assists, Nerlens Noel 13 points and three blocks, and Archie Goodwin 12 points and five rebounds. But Kentucky blew a 16-point lead late in the second half and needed a controversial shot from Noel that officials ruled barley beat a shot clock violation to secure the win. Still, the Commodores exposed Kyle Wilter on defense so much that Calipari publicly called him out for his poor play.
Johnson missed a 3-point shot that could have won that game.
“I thought about that for about a week,” Johnson admitted. “When I let it go, I thought it was in. Then my dream was shattered.”
On Feb. 20 in Lexington, UK beat the Commodores 74-70 in their second game without Noel. Willie Cauley-Stein had 20 points and three blocks, Goodwin had 16 points and six rebounds, and Harrow added 12 points and four assists.
Vanderbilt made 10 of 22 3-point shots in the second game against UK after missing 22 of 30 in the game at Nashville. Kentucky was a combined 7-for-29 from 3-point range against the Commodores.
“The second game they fed off the crowd energy and we did not play defense,” Vanderbilt center Josh Henderson said. “We were disappointed we did not play better. We also didn’t knock down a lot of shots that we normally make. Hopefully on a neutral court we will make more shots. It’s a quick turnaround having to play again so fast, but Kentucky put itself in a situation not to have to play today and we didn’t. We just have to still come play with energy.”
That’s what Rod Odom (20 points, seven rebounds, four blocks, three assists, two steals) and Kyle Fuller (19 points, two steals) did against Arkansas.
Fuller pulled no punches about what the Commodores have to do against Kentucky.
“What I feel like we need to do is not stop throwing punches. Kentucky is really a team and talented team. I feel what they did better than us, they kept on throwing punches. They kept playing, they kept playing hard, and I felt like it was a four-minute war, we got tight and stopped throwing punches,” Fuller said. “I felt like now we've gotten a little older to the point where we have to know that even the game is close, we cannot stop throwing punches and cannot stop throwing punches because they're going to throw it at us.
“We got to compete for 40 minutes,” Odom said. “We had stretches in the game we didn't play too well and that really hurt us at the end. So I think the biggest thing is just trying to go out there and compete for a full 40 minutes.”
Stallings remembers his team having a much harder time defending UK the second game — without the injured Noel — than it did the first game.
“I remember they did whatever they wanted to do to our defense. They drove us, they threw it inside, scored it seemed like at will. If that happens again we'll lose again. That's what I remember,” Stallings said. “It just felt to me like they did more to us on offense. We did not have any answers. I just know we did not guard them.
“We don’t score a lot of post-up points. We try to get the defense spread out and make shots. We need to make shots and Kentucky is great at defending.”
Vanderbilt lost five SEC games by four points — including two to Kentucky — or less as well as one overtime game. Stallings says his team is better equipped now to handle close games.
“Again, we've had a bunch of close games with Kentucky. They've won most of them,” Stallings said. “I don't want to sit here and profess that we're ready to win a close game even against Kentucky. I hope that we are.
“I anticipate that it will be a very competitive game but, again, our goal, whether our players articulated this well enough or not, our goal was to play on Friday. Now our goal is to play on Saturday.”
“In order to do that we're going to have to beat a very, very good team and play a very, very good game.”