NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kentucky finally got another test in the Southeastern Conference and the Wildcats' stingy, sticky defense helped them pass yet again and take a big step toward the regular-season conference title.
Doron Lamb hit a 3-pointer with 3:18 left to put No. 1 Kentucky ahead to stay, and the Wildcats beat Vanderbilt 69-63 Saturday night for their 17th straight win by not allowing a point inside the final 4 minutes.
"We wanted to lock up defensively," Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis said. "We needed a stop, and the only way that we were going to win the game was to lock up. That's what we tried to do."
Kentucky (25-1, 11-0) disrupted Vanderbilt with aggressive defense in the first half, and the Wildcats held off a furious charge in a sold-out and electric Memorial Gym by scoring the final eight points of the game. The young and talented Wildcats wound up holding off the experienced Vanderbilt squad that had been predicted to be their best challenge this season.
"This was two teams slugging it out, it really was," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "(Vanderbilt) wasn't going away, and we weren't going away. We made some shots. They missed some shots. We won the game. Hats off to Vanderbilt fans. It was a great environment. It is why we do what we do, both players and coaches."
Calipari wasn't quite ready to credit his defense for Vanderbilt missing its final nine shots, saying he needed to check the tape to see if the Commodores simply missed some of those attempts. The Kentucky coach did appreciate a strong test for a team that had won its last four SEC games by 20 points.
"We need all of this. In every huddle, I kept saying this is great for us. It is what we need," Calipari said. "To be honest, I would rather we be up 23 points. They are an execution team, a veteran team, seniors. They played like that. We got better today."
Now Kentucky has a three-game lead in the conference with five games remaining.
"I don't think we're going to lose that many games," Davis said.
Lamb finished with 16 points, Anthony Davis added 15 points and seven blocks, Terrence Jones scored 14 and Marquis Teague had 13.
Vanderbilt (17-8, 6-4) led 63-61 with 4:08 to go on a jumper by Brad Tinsley. The Commodores didn't score again and snapped a four-game home winning streak over No. 1 teams. They missed a chance to pull into a tie with Florida for second in the SEC.
They had four senior starters and the top two scorers in the conference, but none of it was any match for Kentucky.
"It was a pretty good college game if you didn't care who won," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I thought our guys really battled in the second half. We just kind of come out of the gate, gassed out at the beginning, I think. We fought hard. We rebounded hard. And, like I said, they just made a couple more plays than we did. We're very disappointed."
Vanderbilt top scorers in league play are Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins, but neither matched their average. Jenkins led Vanderbilt with 15 points and Taylor had 13. Tinsley and Festus Ezeli also added 13 each.
Kentucky had held its previous five opponents to an average of 49.6 points with the nation's stingiest field goal percentage defense at 35.8 percent. Vanderbilt came in with the SEC's best percentage from beyond the arc, and Kentucky held the Commodores to just 8 of 21 from 3-point range (38.1 percent) — well below their 42.1 percent average.
The Wildcats led 36-23 at halftime and had been up by as much as 14 in the first half. That included a stretch where they held Vanderbilt scoreless for five minutes.
"Digging ourselves that hole kind of cost us the game there in the first half," Taylor said.
Vanderbilt opened the second half by hitting six of its first seven shots from long range and 10 of its first 14 overall from the floor in rallying back.
Taylor, held to only two points in the first half, scored 11 as Vanderbilt chipped away at the lead, and his 3-pointer with 11:58 tied it up at 48. The Commodores got a turnover under the Kentucky basket, and Goulbourne passed to Tinsley for a dunk he celebrated with a scream, giving Vandy a 53-51 lead that was its first since 9-8.
Ezeli added a dunk for Vanderbilt's biggest lead.
Davis answered with a jumper and a dunk he finished with a free throw for a three-point play. Tinsley hit a 3-pointer before his bucket with 4:08 to go. Lamb then put Kentucky ahead to stay with his 3 from the left corner in front of the Wildcats' bench after the Commodores collapsed on Darius Miller in the paint.
"I was wide open in the corner, and I knocked it down," Lamb said.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played much of the second half in foul trouble, hit two free throws and Darius Miller also scored.
Taylor's 3-point attempt in the final minute was blocked by Davis before bouncing off the back of Ezeli's head.
"We missed some bunnies," Stallings said. "They pressed us and we break the press and we've got a dunk and we drop the ball, foul. We had some opportunities. We just didn't take advantage of them."