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February 25, 2012

Dominant Davis makes Player of the Year case

Two weeks ago, Kentucky produced a poster intended to promote Anthony Davis as a National Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Maybe UK aimed too low.

Davis produced his own Player of the Year campaign at Saturday at Rupp Arena, putting on a show in No. 1 Kentucky's 83-74 win against Vanderbilt that stated an effective case for the Wildcats' freshman forward as the nation's top player.

"After the game, I just told everybody they did what they did, and how good, and I said (to Davis), 'You were pretty good, too,'" UK coach John Calipari said. "And the whole team started laughing. They thought it was hysterical."

And with good reason.

Even in this standout season, Davis' Saturday afternoon was a standout, almost inarguably his finest day at UK. He scored a career-high 28 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked five shots and made critical baskets in a hard-fought game as Kentucky (28-1, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) clinched the regular-season SEC championship outright.

"It seemed like every time they needed something, Davis got it done for them," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "He was spectacular."

Davis hurt the Commodores (20-9, 9-5) in a variety of ways. He swatted shots and crashed the glass the way he typically does, providing a defensive impact as the Wildcats held Vandy to 41.3 percent shooting.

But he also showed off an expanding offensive game. Three times during the game, Davis made shots in the closing seconds of the shot clock, one from 18 feet away with 1:05 to play that gave UK a 75-68 lead.

"That's what great players do," Stallings said. "They get those plays done at the end of the clock."

But they weren't the sort of shots Davis could have made earlier this season.

Though Davis insists he never lost confidence in his jump shot, it didn't drop earlier in the year. And there was a time this season when, if a defense collapsed and took away the lob pass to Davis, it could effectively take him out of the UK offense.

Not anymore.

"I wasn't knocking down shots (early in the season)," Davis said. "They fouled, I was missing free throws, couldn't take bumps. There were a lot of flaws in my game, so I kept working on them, working on them. I didn't catch a lob today and I still was able to find ways to score the ball."

So were his teammates, after a sluggish start.

Vanderbilt raced out of the gate, scoring four points on its first possession - a free throw, an offensive rebound and a three-pointer - to take a 4-0 lead, and every time the Wildcats made a run, the Commodores had an answer.

Marquis Teague's layup with 5:06 to play in the first half put Kentucky in front 32-24, the sort of score that typically spells the start of a blowout in Rupp Arena. But Vanderbilt didn't cave.

The Commodores closed the half on a 13-4 run and led 37-36 at halftime, joining North Carolina as the only teams this season to hold a lead at the half against UK in Rupp Arena.

Again in the second half, the Cats threatened to run away. Darius Miller's layup with 7:44 to play put UK ahead 66-56, but again Vanderbilt battled back. The Commodores reeled off nine straight points to pull within 66-65 on a John Jenkins free throw with 4:22 to play.

So the Cats turned to Davis. His step-back jumper at the 3:46 mark came late in the shot clock and put Kentucky ahead 68-65, and Vanderbilt never got closer.

"I just caught it, saw (there were) like two ticks on the clock and knew I had to put it up," Davis said. "I just turned around, shot it and it went in. It really got us hyped. I think that put us up a couple of points, really got the crowd into it and the fans into it."

It was part of a total-repertoire day for Davis, who's considered one of the favorites - along with Kansas' Thomas Robinson - for National Player of the Year honors.

Perhaps no player in the country impacts a game defensively the way Davis does. His five blocked shots Saturday gave him 138 for the season. That leads the nation and moved Davis into 10th place on UK's all-time list in 29 games. He surpassed Nazr Mohammed, who played in 94 games.

But Davis also is expanding his offensive game. Calipari has given him the green light to pick-and-pop rather than pick-and-roll, creating space for him to take the open jump shot.

Asked how dangerous that makes Davis, teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist smiled and said, "What do you think?"

Davis is scary good. The scary part: he's getting better.

"I've been holding him back," Calipari joked. "I'm trying to get him to stay in school another year."


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