Vandy slams door shut on Kentucky
So, they can be beaten. It took a stone-cold final five minutes where Kentucky couldn't throw it in the ocean, but give Vanderbilt and Kevin Stallings credit: they did what nobody thought possible and upset the No. 1-ranked Wildcats 71-64 to win the SEC Championship.
If there has ever been a finer moment in Vanderbilt college athletics, it doesn't jump immediately to mind. As the clocked ticked down to zero, emotions spilled over on the Commodore bench. Jeffery Taylor wept opening as he hugged Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang found himself on the bottom of a pile on the floor in the midst of the celebration. Even the normally hard Kevin Stallings broke down, putting a towel over his face as a mixture of euphoria and relief overwhelmed him.
Not only was it Vandy's first SEC Championship win in half a century, they beat the seemingly unbeatable, halting Kentucky's win streak at 24 and denying the Wildcats (the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament) the momentum they had hoped would carry them through the Big Dance.
Stallings deserves all the credit. His plan to shrink the court and force the Wildcats into taking outside shots worked. The ‘Dores also answered each of Kentucky's runs by getting the ball in the hands of their hot three. Taylor finished the day with 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Ezeli and John Jenkins had 17 points apiece.
"I couldn't be happier for my players because this season has had its ups and its downs," Stallings said. "We have been the target of much criticism, and to my players' credit, they never let that get to them. They never let it create a seam in our squad or let it create any division in anything that we did."
Vandy was able to spread the offense with Jenkins hitting three three-pointers and three more field goals driving off the floor while Taylor had a pair of threes. Ezeli was his usual menacing presence underneath, scoring five field goals and making seven out of 10 from the foul line.
As for Kentucky, this loss is particularly hurtful, because it shatters the psychological air in invincibility the Cats hoped to carry into the NCAA tournament. Not only is Kentucky beatable, if you get them in the right circumstance, you can beat them handily.
"I think it makes us hungrier and we want to go harder taking an L like this and our win streak being done," Terrence Jones said. "I think it's going to make us go back to just playing hungrier."
Hungry or not, this was John Calipari's worst nightmare. He had to watch, yet again, as the Jekyll-and-Hyde play of his point guard Marquis Teague cost the team. The freshman seemingly never has an average game. He is either awful - a timid kid slow-walking the ball down the court and making powder-puff passes which allows the slowest defender to react - or he is brilliant, aggressive, and instinctual. There is no in between.
After stinking it up against LSU, the freshman had a stupendous game against Florida. But, in the Championship game, Teague was Mr. Hyde. He scored zero points and had only one steal, while allowing Jenkins to move the ball at will.
With the exception of Teague, the Wildcats, once again, had a very balanced attack. The other four starters scored in double-digits and Antony Davis and Terrence Jones both had double doubles, each finishing the day with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
The unlikely leading scorer Coach Cal was senior Darius Miller, who got the start at the suggestion of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who thought Miller should be on the first at the beginning of his final SEC tournament game.
Calipari agreed, but only after he had a long chat with Miller at 10:30 Friday night. "Get the drama out of your life," Cal told last year's SEC tournament MVP. "Turn your phone off. Forget what people are saying. If you're not scoring, think about the other things you're doing to help us win."
He did everything he could, scoring 16, including two three-pointers to go with four assists, three rebounds, two steals, one blocked shot, and enough cheerleading fist pumps to get the Big Blue Nation on its feet in full-fledge support. But in the last five minutes, Miller and his teammates went cold, throwing up dud after dud to blow an eight point lead in the second half and give Vandy an insurmountable edge as the final, foul-strewn seconds ticked away.
"We had our chances," Cal said. "We had our shots. We didn't make them."