NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Kentucky threw jabs and uppercuts and sometimes even big, sweeping haymakers against Vanderbilt twice this season.
And twice the Commodores gave themselves a puncher's chance.
"I feel what they did better than us, they kept on throwing punches," Vanderbilt forward Rod Odom said after the Commodores beat Arkansas 75-72 to set up a third meeting with UK, this one in a Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal. "They kept playing, they kept playing hard, and I felt like it was a four minute war, we got tight and stopped throwing punches."
If the Wildcats can deliver the blow that knocks Vanderbilt out of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena, the next thing getting punched could be UK's NCAA Tournament ticket.
One more win likely puts Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC) in good shape for an at-large bid. A loss to the Commodores (15-16, 8-10) could make things dicey.
"But we can't worry about any of that stuff," UK coach John Calipari said Thursday night at the team's Nashville hotel. "What we've gotta do is: Let's play against ourselves. Let's be the best we can be. Let's have everybody show up and do their job."
The Cats did that in stretches in two earlier meetings with the Commodores.
UK led by as many as 16 points in a Jan. 10 win at Memorial Gym before Vanderbilt went on an 18-0 run to take the lead. The Cats went on to win 60-58.
Last month in Lexington, Kentucky led by as many as 14 points in the first half and 13 in the second before the Commodores cut the lead to two points. The Cats clawed their way to a 74-70 win.
"We gave them three threes (at Rupp Arena) by just getting screened and not talking," Calipari said. "And they're a team that makes them, so all of the sudden they make their baskets and you come down and do something dumb. They're going to take advantage of it. They're a good basketball team."
That wasn't the case for much of this season.
But since that loss in Lexington on Feb. 20, Vanderbilt has won five of six, including Thursday's quarterfinal win against Arkansas. Vanderbilt led by as many as 16 points in the second half and withstood a furious Razorbacks rally.
The Commodores built their lead Thursday with the three-point shot - they made 12-of-28 from long range - and stopping it could be the key to Kentucky completing a season sweep.
"If they hit 13 against us, we'll probably go home a loser," Calipari said. "We're gonna guard them, but it doesn't matter. They're gonna shoot 'em. Whether you really guard them - then they'll step back deeper."
But the three-pointers over the course of the game didn't impress Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings as much as the key stops in the end after Arkansas rallied to within a possession.
"Earlier in the season we would have lost this game," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We would have ï¿½" the (missed) foul shots, the turnovers would have freaked us out, we would have lost."
The Commodores lost two tight games against the Wildcats, and Stallings said he would "anticipate a slugfest" in the third. But Vanderbilt will enter it on a roll and having picked up some close-game confidence.
"I don't want to sit here and profess that we're ready to win a close game even against Kentucky," Stallings said. "I hope that we are. I anticipate that it will be a very competitive game but, again, our goal, whether our players articulated this well enough or not, our goal was to play on Friday. Now our goal is to play on Saturday. In order to do that we're going to have to beat a very, very good team and play a very, very good game."
Calipari knows his team needs to play an equally good game.
And though he said his team has had "three really good days of practice," he doesn't know whether it'll carry that into Friday.
"Come on now, you've watched us all year," Calipari said. "No one knows. Have no idea. This isn't a team where I know, 'OK, I don't know how that other team is going to play, but I know how we'll play.' I have no idea.
"So, hopefully we come out of the gate, we play well, but even if we don't I just want to see us play for 40 minutes, play, compete, battle."
Site: Bridgestone Arena (20,000), Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network (Dave Neal play by play, Jon Sundvold analyst, Shannon Spake sideline); SEC Network affiliates.
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 126/XM 199.
Series record: Kentucky leads 138-45
At SEC Tournament: Tied 4-4
Coaches' records: Calipari 8-2 vs. Vanderbilt; Stallings 10-20 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 74, Vanderbilt 70, Feb. 20, Lexington, Ky.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 20 points and two key blocked shots to help preserve a Wildcat win, Kentucky's first this season after losing Nerlens Noel to a knee injury. UK led by eight points at halftime and by as many as 13 in the second half, but Vandy chipped away (as it had in an earlier meeting this season in Nashville) and pulled to within two points before a Julius Mays three-pointer.