NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Somehow, Vanderbilt made a game of it.
Somehow, Kentucky survived.
The Southeastern Conference opener for both teams began as a laugher but turned into a nail-biter before the Wildcats survived, 60-58, Thursday before 14,316 fans Memorial Gymnasium.
Vanderbilt's Kedren Johnson launched an open 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have knocked out Kentucky, but the ball bounced away harmlessly. UK breathed a sigh of relief.
"We were lucky to win the game," UK coach John Calipari said.
Inside dominance sparked Kentucky (10-4) to a 16-point lead, but for the Wildcats, it was fool's gold.
Vanderbilt (6-7), the same team which scored 33 points in a November loss to Marist, came alive and ripped off an 18-0 run, taking a 49-47 lead. Memorial Gym was rocking.
The Wildcats weren't sure what hit them.
"All of a sudden, we were down, and I was like, 'Dang,'" Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein said.
The Wildcats re-grouped and found a way to rally past the team that upset Kentucky in the championship game of last season's Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Ryan Harrow's 3-pointer put UK ahead, 51-49, with 4:55 remaining. When the Commodores later tied it at 54, Kentucky's Kyle Wiltler swished a jump shot to put the Wildcats back in front, 56-54. Kentucky would not trail again.
Controversy emerged with 18 seconds to go when Kentucky's Nerlens Noel canned a short jumper that appeared to come after the shot clock had expired. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings protested vehemently, but the basket stood, making it 60-55.
"It was good all the way," Calipari deadpanned.
Johnson's 3-pointer kept Vanderbilt alive at 60-58, and a Kentucky turnover with 6.7 seconds left gave the Commodores one last opportunity. But Johnson's shot went adrift.
"In the second half, they came out more smash-mouth style, and we didn't push back," Cauley-Stein said of Vanderbilt. "We have to change that because every SEC game is going to be like that."
Calipari, who has called for more aggressiveness from his team, seemed exasperated. In his postgame press conference, the fourth-year Kentucky coach called out sophomore Kyle Wiltjer and freshman Alex Poythress for sub-par play.
An exasperated UK coach John Calipari reacted to a play in the second half. (USA TODAY Sports Photo by Jim Brown.)
By Calipari's estimation, 14 of Vanderbilt's 24 points in the first half came against Wiltjer's porous defense.
"They went at Kyle every single possession," Calipari said.
Calipari noted that future Kentucky opponents will view tapes of Vanderbilt's attack on Wiltjer, and that Kentucky will have to adjust accordingly.
"There are some things we're going to do," Calipari said.
As for Poythress, who nearly signed with Vanderbilt before choosing Kentucky, his lack of an offensive rebound, while yielding five to Vanderbilt counterpart Shelby Moats, chafed Calipari. The Commodores had 20 offensive boards and won the rebounding battle, 42-37, despite entering the game as the SEC's second-worst rebounding team.
"We got out-rebounded by a team that has been out-rebounded all year," Calipari said. "Who's out-working who?"
Harrow led Kentucky with 16 points, while Noel scored 13 and Archie Goodwin added 12. Johnson tossed in 18 points to lead Vanderbilt and helped jump-start the big second-half run with an assortment of jumpers, slashes to the basket and nifty passes.
Utilizing its superior size, Kentucky sprinted to a 24-12 lead while Vanderbilt made only five of its first 21 shots. The Commodores closed the half with back-to-back 3-pointers by Johnson and Rod Odom to make it 35-24, a surprisingly close margin for how dominant the Wildcats had seemed to open the game.
"They got all their points in the first half right at the rim," Moats said of UK.
UK threatened to deliver a blowout when the lead swelled at 43-27 with 16:27 remaining on a free throw by Goodwin.
That's when Vanderbilt opened its run and forced Kentucky into survival mode.
"It was an ugly win," Harrow said. "At least we got the win."
* Kentucky, the all-time NCAA leader in wins, recorded its 2,100th victory.
* UK now leads the all-time series with Vanderbilt 137-45. The Cats are 54-27 all-time against the Commodores in Nashville
* Noel has at least six rebounds in all 14 games this season and multiple blocked shots and steals in nine games.
* Willie Cauley-Stein set a career high with four assists and matched a career high with four blocked shots.
* UK returns to action on Saturday against Texas A&M at Rupp Arena in the first SEC meeting between the two programs. Tipoff is slated for a 4 p.m. ET.