Kentucky's first half was another perfect example of what can happen when even a veteran team loses its focus.
Just as they have in many games this season, the Wildcats lost their offensive rhythm after taking the early lead.
They had 10 turnovers in the final nine minutes of the first half, and instead of sending a statement to future SEC opponents that they were truly the team to beat again this year, they let Vanderbilt and others see that they were not nearly as invincible now as they were most of last year.
Even worse, Vanderbilt sensed that before the game because of what it had seen other UK opponents already do. That's one reason Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wasn't about to panic when his team fell behind 15-3 eight minutes into Saturday's game.
"I thought we would get back into the game," Stallings said. "They were up on North Carolina. They were up on Louisville. They've been up on everybody this year, but some have found a way to get back into the game. I was not the least bit concerned about our ability to get back in the game."
Vanderbilt certainly did that. The Commodores, who were 12-0 coming into the game, closed the first half with a 17-10 spurt to cut UK's lead to 34-32. After the Cats pulled back ahead 48-35 with a 14-3 run to open the second half, Vanderbilt came charging back again to reduce the deficit to 57-55 with 5:52 to play.
But just when it looked like UK might let the victory slip away, the Cats regrouped. Gerald Fitch hit four free throws and Bernard Cote put in a follow shot to make it 63-57.
Then Cliff Hawkins atoned for some of his lackadaisical play by knocking the ball away from Vandy star Matt Freije, saving it inbounds as he fell into the scorer's table, and Fitch hit a 3-point shot.
After a Vanderbilt miss, Hawkins hit a fallaway shot in the lane to complete UK's 11-point explosion in just over two minutes that put the game away.
"Kentucky is a tough team. They believe they are going to win and expect to win," Stallings said. "You've got to come in here and play a great game to win, and we didn't do that."
Kentucky didn't, either. Not with 23 turnovers, including a combined 14 by Hawkins (eight) and Fitch (six).
"We have a tendency to want to hit the home run and score quickly rather than be patient," Smith said. "I thought we just tried some ill-advised passes that were not there."
What Kentucky did do, though, was play defense, rebound and shoot well. Vanderbilt, which was shooting 48 percent coming into the game, hit just 41 percent. The Cats also won the rebounding battle 42-23 even though Vanderbilt had been outrebounding opponents by 10 per game. Finally, UK shot 54 percent (27-for-50).
"If we shoot over 50 percent, get to the free throw line (23 times) and rebound the ball the way we did, it gives us an opportunity to win, but you can't count on that every game, especially on the road. We got away with 23 turnovers tonight, but we can't count on that again," Smith said.
The Wildcats know they'll need a better effort Tuesday at Mississippi State to win again. The Bulldogs are 13-0 after Saturday's win over Arkansas, and the Cats expect to face an inspired team and raucous crowd.
"Not only will we not beat Mississippi State, we won't beat a lot of people turning the ball over the way we did tonight," said Fitch, who had 16 points and six assists. "This is just not acceptable."
"We've got too much experience to make the mistakes we did tonight," forward Chuck Hayes said. "Maybe we're trying to make too many big plays, trying to turn a game into showtime. I don't know what it is but we better figure it out. We can't make mistakes like this and keep winning."