The University of Kentucky women's soccer team defeated Vanderbilt 6-1 Friday at the UK Soccer Complex in Lexington, Ky., to advance to next week's SEC Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala. Photo by Chet White
Freshman Anthony Davis and No. 1 Kentucky might just be in perfect position as the regular season winds down.
Davis is a leading candidate for national player of the year, while the Wildcats (27-1, 13-0) are closing in on the first undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference since accomplishing the feat in 2003.
"We're in a good position right now, but we still have to come out and work hard, play hard. Nothing can change at all," Davis said. "We're getting better every day in practice, going hard. We're going to be good when it comes tournament time."
Make that a favorite.
It's made it easy for Davis to stay locked in on the Wildcats instead of other things - like where he might be drafted if he declares for the NBA - or looking back at a blown opportunity for an undefeated season: the buzzer beating loss to Indiana on Dec. 10.
Instead, he's focused on Vanderbilt (20-8, 9-4) on Saturday.
"We're playing excellent right now," Davis said. "We've just got to keep coming out and playing the way we know how to play."
The Wildcats will put their 50-game home winning streak on the line on Saturday against the Commodores, who have won at every SEC venue in the last four years except Rupp Arena.
For Kentucky to become just the third team in the SEC with an undefeated record since 1956, the Wildcats would need to beat Georgia on Thursday night and win at Florida on Sunday before the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament that follows.
Davis believes the feelings they had after the loss to the Hoosiers continues to help them 2Â½ months later
"I think everyone needs a loss," he said. "I think it was kind of good for us, just to see how losing feels, so guys won't get big headed. The loss helped us get back in the groove."
And helped them forge a defensive identity. The Wildcats rank first in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.3 percent and lead the nation in blocked shots with 254, including a nation's best 133 from Davis.
Kentucky needed poise in a rally from a 13-point halftime deficit against Mississippi State on Tuesday. The Wildcats finished the game on a 15-2 run in a 73-64 victory.
"You have to defend, play smart on offense, take good shots and be aggressive on defense. We defended and that helped us get back in the game," Kentucky freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. "We are a defensive team. We play well together, we talk and we've played well on defense all year so it's not a problem for us."
Vanderbilt has 16 road wins in league play over the last four years, including at least one in every venue in the SEC except Rupp Arena.
"I didn't know that," Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli said. "I actually didn't think about it. Yeah, I haven't won there yet. Last year, we got close, lost by a point."
Actually, it was two.
The Wildcats held off Vanderbilt's late surge for a 68-66 victory to finish 15-0 at home last season. It was the closest game in the home winning streak until a 73-72 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 3.
John Jenkins leads Vanderbilt with 20.1 points per game, but the Commodores realize they have a tough test. Vanderbilt has never beat a No. 1 team on the road in eight tries. Six of those games happened in Lexington.
"Everything is difficult about it. What is so difficult? Everything," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Offense, defense, rebounding, everything; everything is difficult about playing there, but it begins with the quality of their team and how well their team plays."
Kentucky has its share of budding stars.
Besides Davis, Teague and freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the group has gotten big offensive contributions from sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones and senior Darius Miller. All six could go in the first round of June's NBA draft.
"Darius has been a big part of those finishes when we're down - making shots, making plays, defensive plays. I think he's probably more calm than anybody else out there," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He did the thing offensively we need to have done, which is they were going to play zone and sagging and he made those shots.
"The other thing I liked in that is if we have to go with Doron extended minutes at point guard, we're fine."
Kentucky has been dominant at home, but Calipari isn't interested in talking about the nation's best home winning streak when the school and NCAA mark is 129 set in 1943-55.
"We're not matching any record," Calipari said. "I can tell you that."