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February 11, 2012NASHVILLE, Tenn. - John Calipari probably said more, but he only needed three words to get his pregame point across as No. 1 Kentucky prepared to take on Vanderbilt Saturday night.
He scribbled them across the board in the UK locker room at Memorial Gym.
"Love The Road," he wrote.
The Wildcats got the message.
Kentucky blew a double-digit halftime lead, took the best Memorial Magic that Vanderbilt had to offer and pulled a little of its own sleight of hand, handing Vandy a 69-63 home loss.
"It's great playing at home, but we all live for this, playing on the road," said freshman Anthony Davis, who had 15 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. "There's nothing better than playing on the road, especially in an environment like this."
The environment was wild, with 14,316 fans packing Memorial Gym, many hyped up from ESPN's "College GameDay" appearance.
The game was wilder.
Kentucky (25-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) dominated the first half, misfiring from three-point range but clicking most everywhere else. The Wildcats shot 53.3 percent before halftime, held Vandy (17-8, 6-4) to 27.6 percent shooting and took a 36-23 lead into the locker room.
As the halftime horn sounded, most of the sound in the stands was coming from the folks in blue.
The Wildcats figured it was too good to last.
"We knew they were going to make a run," said point guard Marquis Teague, who played perhaps his best game of the season with 13 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one turnover. "This is their gym and they play great here. They've got a lot of shooters and we never thought they were out of it."
Sure enough, the Commodores found a counterpunch.
It came in the form of a 32-15 burst to start the second half. Fueled by a barrage of three-pointers and sizzling shooting - the Commodores made 15 of their first 25 shots in the second half - Vanderbilt surged to a 55-51 lead with 8:42 to play.
It was an unfamiliar test for a Kentucky team that had won its previous four games by at least 20 points and hadn't trailed in a second half since a Jan. 14 win at Tennessee.
"I kept saying in the huddles, 'This is exactly what we need,'" Calipari said. "Now, I'm going to be honest, I'd rather be up 23."
But Calipari had said after Tuesday's 78-58 win against Florida that UK needed to be tested, needed a hot-shooting team to push his Cats to the brink. He got all that, and he's bringing home a win.
Kentucky responded to Vanderbilt's 55-51 lead with the poise of a more veteran club. Davis scored on a putback, then caught a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist lob for a dunk-and-foul three-point play.
Doron Lamb's three-pointer with 7:16 to play put the Cats in front 59-55.
Senior-heavy Vanderbilt wasn't finished.
"This was two teams slugging in out, it really was," Calipari said. "They weren't going to go away, we weren't going to go away."
Brad Tinsley tied the game at 61-61 on a three-pointer with 4:49 to play, and gave the Commodores the lead 63-61 with a long two-pointer at the 4:08 mark.
Vanderbilt didn't score again.
Another Lamb three-pointer with 3:16 to play put Kentucky in front 64-63, and Vanderbilt couldn't find the basket. Davis swatted shots. Contested jumpers misfired. The Commodores missed their last nine shots of the game.
"We just told each other in every huddle that we had that we were going to lock up defensively," Davis said. "We needed stops, and the only way we were going to win the game was to lock up.
"That's what we tried to do. Chasing off ball screens, closing out with high hands, playing great post defense, blocking shots, rebounding - that's what we did in that last four minutes."
In the closing minutes, Teague drove left, stumbled and managed to shovel the ball to Darius Miller, whose layup beat the shot-clock buzzer with 1:11 to play, giving Kentucky a 68-63 lead and draining most of the leftover life out of Memorial Gym.
There were "Go Big Blue!" chants at the end. And there was an echo of Calipari's pregame message.
"Love this," Calipari said he told his team. "Love this environment. Relish this. Keep this in your mind, and when you're 40, you'll think about playing this game."