Perfect mark again UK's goal

January 09, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Kentucky was unbeatable against Southeastern Conference opponents last year.

Nineteen of UK's victories during its 26-game win streak came against SEC foes - 16 in the regular season and three more in the conference tournament. Saturday the Wildcats start league play again when they host Vanderbilt, a team they beat by 62 points here last season, and again have their eye on a perfect record.

"It's going to be tough to go unbeaten again, but it is not a goal that is unachievable," said UK senior point guard Cliff Hawkins. "We feel we can compete and beat anybody in the SEC if we play the way we are capable."

"I definitely think we can go undefeated again. That's our goal," senior forward Erik Daniels said. "If we just execute our offense and play tough defense, it is definitely possible. It's not like there's any pressure on us to do it because we've already done it once.


"We know everybody is going to be gunning for us, but we are still the champions and we plan to defend that title."

Kentucky got perhaps its most important win of the 2002-2003 season when it overcame a 36-28 halftime deficit to win 74-52 at Vanderbilt in its third conference game.

"We can't think about last year's games," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We need to have the same mindset that there is a job to do and that we have to do the best we can."

The Commodores are 12-0 and ranked 20th nationally coming into Saturday's game. They blew a 17-point second-half lead against visiting Auburn Wednesday before rallying to win 59-53 in their SEC opener.

"Vanderbilt looked pretty impressive against Auburn," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "When you are 12-0, you are playing with a lot of confidence and belief in one another.

"I hope our guys understand that last year's game will be a big motivational factor for them. We've not done a good job pressuring the ball like we did last year when we beat them. We've got to do a lot better job to compete with Vanderbilt. That's got to be our strength. We can't go toe-to-toe with people. We've got to use our quickness."

Stallings has no doubt that Kentucky has more than enough ability to "compete" with his team. Plus, Vanderbilt is winless in 26 games in Rupp Arena and has won just once in the last 22 meetings between the teams.

"They are like they always are," Stallings said. "They are tough and extraordinarily good on defense. They always have veteran guys who are winners. They have the type of guys who make big shots. It's like they manufacture guys who make great plays. They play together well. They are extremely good passers, and they do a good job on the boards despite being undersized."

Vandy is off to best start in school history

Still, the Cats know they'll face an inspired Vanderbilt Saturday. The Commodores are off to their best start in school history and lead the Southeastern Conference in scoring margin (21.1 points per game), free throw percentage (75.6), rebounding margin (10), assists (19.8) and 3-point field goals made (7.67). The Commodores are also in the top three in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, scoring and 3-point field goal percentage.

"We know they are looking forward to playing us. Any team would after getting beat by 62 points like they did last year," UK sophomore Kelenna Azubuike said. "Any good college team will have the attitude of wanting to come back and avenge that kind of defeat."

Stallings hopes he has a team capable of doing that.

"Last year we had no seniors and that was a problem," Stallings said. "Now we're older, and we've made significant strides physically. Just the natural maturation of the team has made us better. Almost everyone on the team at one time or another has also made significant contributions and that's really made a difference in our play."

Vanderbilt's best player is 6-8 senior Matt Freije, who averages 18.8 points per game. He'll likely be guarded by Daniels while UK's Chuck Hayes goes against 6-10 Julian Terrell, a sophomore averaging 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

"Freije likes to step out and shoot the 3. He's a tough player to guard, I am pretty sure we can stop him," Daniels said.

However, Smith warned that Vandy is more than a one-man team. Senior Scott Hundley, a Lexington native, is averaging 10 points and 5.3 rebounds per game as the team's sixth man. Senior guard Russell Lakey also gives the Commodores a spark off the bench after starting last year.

"They have a nice blend of seniors and young players," Smith said. "They are to a man stronger and better than last year. You can tell they made a commitment to getting bigger and stronger and that's one reason they have been successful this year."

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