GAME NOTES: The second-seeded Kentucky Wildcats will play their first game of the 2013 SEC Tournament on Friday night, as they take on the 10th-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores in the quarterfinal round at Bridgestone Arena.
Vanderbilt pulled off an upset in its second-round matchup by taking down seventh-seeded Arkansas, 75-72. The Commodores, who defeated Kentucky in last year's SEC Tournament championship game, are just 15-16 on the season but are surprisingly one of the hottest teams in the league with wins in five of their last six games.
Kentucky (21-10) halted a two-game skid in its regular-season finale by securing a 61-57 home victory over Florida to finish at 12-6 in the SEC and earn the No. 2 seed in this event. The win over the nationally-ranked Gators certainly helped the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament chances, but they would still benefit greatly from a strong showing in the SEC Tournament, where they are the most successful team in event history with a 119-23 record and 27 titles.
The Wildcats swept the season series with Vanderbilt this year, but those two wins only came by a combined six points. Kentucky has a firm handle on the all-time series, 138-45.
Vanderbilt played the role of front-runner for most of its latest game, even leading by as many as 16 points in the second half, and while the Razorbacks cut their deficit to single-digits down the stretch, they could never take the lead. The team had a modest night shooting from the field (.411), but it was active from 3-point range, draining 12-of-28 from beyond the arc. Rod Odom shot 5-of-9 from long range for 20 points while adding seven rebounds and four blocks, while Kyle Fuller netted 19 points off the bench, and Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker chipped in 13 and 11 points, respectively.
On the season, the Commodores typically aren't a very strong offensive team, netting a mere 60.5 ppg, but they have found success thanks to their outstanding defense, which allows just 60.4 ppg. Johnson is the team's top scorer with 13.6 ppg, while Odom brings 10.5 ppg to the table.
The Wildcats appeared in trouble when they trailed Florida by seven (57-50) with under eight minutes to play the last time out, but they held the Gators scoreless for the rest of the game as they finished on an 11-0 run to capture the potential-season-saving victory. UK shot less than 40 percent from the field on the afternoon but kept turnovers to a minimum (10) and won the rebounding battle (40-34). Archie Goodwin led the way with 16 points, Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays netted 13 points apiece, and Alex Poythress tacked on nine points and 12 rebounds.
Kentucky uses a balanced attack that generates 73.9 ppg, while also playing solid defense in yielding just 64.6 ppg. Goodwin acts as the team's leading scorer with 14.1 ppg, while Poythress (11.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is also piecing together an impressive freshman campaign. Upperclassmen Kyle Wiltjer (10.5 ppg), Harrow (10.3 ppg) and Mays (9.5 ppg) are all potent threats out on the perimeter. The loss of Nerlens Noel (10.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 4.4 bpg, 2.1 spg) to a torn ACL a few weeks back certainly hurt, but Willie-Cauley Stein (8.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.1 bpg) has filled his spot in the starting lineup admirably.
Vanderbilt is playing much better than anyone has expected, and after taking Kentucky to the wire twice this season, expect the Commodores to put forth another strong fight. Still, the Wildcats have too much at stake in this matchup and are well rested, giving them the advantage to move on to the semifinals.
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