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Can Vanderbilt be the Cat-alyst again?

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Being the optimist that I am, every time I think of Vanderbilt, I think of an opportunity to excel.  Most Kentucky fans probably remember that Vanderbilt helped launch one of the most successful Kentucky teams in recent memory.  But it's been a while since that seminal game, and Big Blue recollections often need refreshing.  So, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for January 14th, 2003 ...

Here we are at Memorial Gym, Vanderbilt's unusual basketball arena.  Kentucky is warming up, and the guys look kind of disinterested in the upcoming contest.  Tubby Smith has a look of concern on his face, because the Cats are coming into this tilt off two fairly unimpressive games against South Carolina and Tennessee, nearly losing to the hapless Vols.  Kentucky is currently the worst defensive team in the SEC, allowing opponents to shoot 43% from the field.  Like 2008, Kentucky is coming off a loss to bitter foe Louisville, and the Big Blue Nation is grumpy.  The Cats look weak, nobody can score, and even though they are winning games, every game looks like a struggle.

This game begins like so many others have in 2003, with the Cats off to a slow start and Vanderbilt hot from the perimeter.  It seems that everyone on Vandy's team is shooting lights out from three, including 6'10" C/F Matt Freije.  Vandy reels off 8 straight points after Kentucky scores the first two, and the 'Dores blaze the nets from the perimeter, making 7 of 9 three point attempts, and carrying a 36-28 lead into the half.  The Wildcats have the deer-in-the-headlights look heading into the locker room, and Wildcat fans everywhere steel themselves for a major upset, and prepare for the Cats to fall from a tenuous #20 to an unranked team.

But the body language changes coming out of the break.  Kentucky looks angry and determined.  Tubby Smith has a bug-eyed look, and a scowl that seemed to have been put there by God.  As the second half begins, Kentucky comes out strongly on defense, forces a couple of early turnovers, and gets back in the game.  Just over 5 minutes into the first half, Chuck Hayes puts the Wildcats ahead for the first time since 2-0.  The Commodores would lead but one more time, one minute later, and then as we watch, the University of Kentucky Wildcats would do a thing that hasn't been done in memory -- they transform into a juggernaut before our very eyes.

Kentucky goes on a 17-3 run, and outscores the Commodores 28-7 in the first 12 minutes of the second half.  This does not happen because of great shooting, but because of an incredible pressure man-to-man defense that emasculates the 'Dores, creating an incredible 13 turnovers in the half, 12 of them steals.  They go on to bury Vanderbilt in a game that wasn't as close as the score, which winds up 74-52.  The Commodores are aghast at what happened, Matt Freije famously saying "It seemed like we had trouble completing a single pass.  You can't play basketball 45 feet from the basket."  Vanderbilt, an excellent ballhandling team up until this game, finishes with 22 turnovers.

Moving ahead to March, the Cats have ridden the newfound defensive prowess they discovered in the locker room at Vanderbilt University to an undefeated SEC season, their crowning achievement a 70-55 massacre of then-#1 Florida in Rupp Arena, a game that was also not as close as the score.  Kentucky's penultimate game of the regular season was also against the Commodores, and they reprised their early domination of the 'Dores with an even more convincing 106-44 mutilation.

Circumstances are different now, but maybe we can recapture some of the magic that infused our locker room that night just under 5 years removed from Saturday's game.  Kentucky has shown some moments of recapturing at least a share of the Suffocats' defensive prowess from a coach just as determined as Smith to force the opponent far away from the basket.  Perhaps Gillispie can summon forth the same enchantment Tubby Smith did that fateful day, and change the fortunes of this unfortunate Kentucky team.

Here's hoping.