Kentucky must regroup while Vandy revels
March, 11, 2012
By David Helman | ESPN.com
NEW ORLEANS -- As little as this game might have mattered to Kentucky, it meant the world to Vanderbilt.
The mighty Wildcats, winners of the SEC regular season by a dominant margin and champions of 27 other SEC tournaments, won't lose any face in light of a 71-64 loss at the hands of an inspired Commodores squad.
It took 19 games, and two prior losses, but someone in the SEC finally cracked the Wildcats.
But while the Cats lick their wounds and prepare for the NCAA tournament (where they'll still be a No. 1 seed), this is a moment Vandy will cherish for quite some time.
"Kentucky, they set the bar. They set the bar nationally this year, they set the bar in our league almost every year," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "We're proud to have beaten them -- proud to have won a SEC championship."
It's hard to pinpoint just one moment that showcased how badly the Commodores wanted their first championship since 1951. It could have been when Stallings received a technical foul for badgering the refs over a contested call. It may have been the Herculean effort from senior forward Festus Ezeli, who controlled the post for 17 points and six boards against Kentucky's otherworldly frontcourt.
"First off, congrats to Vanderbilt. They got anything they wanted in the post," said Kentucky phenom Anthony Davis, who was frustrated in the paint all afternoon. "They got good position and it was hard for us to fight around it."
Chuck Cook/US PRESSWIREKevin Stallings and John Jenkins embrace following Vanderbilt's win over Kentucky for the SEC tournament title.
The emotion finally spilled over when the final horn sounded, as the Dores mobbed each other at midcourt and TV cameras caught Stallings crying into a towel.
It shined through in the winning locker room, where players blared music and took photos of each other posing with the tournament's hulking pyramid of a trophy.
Asked where the moment registered on a scale of 1-10, Ezeli broke the chart.
"I can't even describe. It might be a 15, I don't know," he said with a grin. "It feels awesome. It feels great."
It might have been even better for John Jenkins, who secured tournament MVP honors with 17 points against the Wildcats. Jenkins, whose grandmother died last week, needed several minutes to collect himself from the court after the score went final.
"It's been really tough for me. So just being out here with my teammates and the coaches has been kind of an outlet for me," he said. "To win the championship after 60-some years is incredible."
Like Kentucky, the Commodores were assured of a ticket to the Big Dance regardless of the outcome of this game. Vandy looks likely to receive a No. 4 or No. 5 seed to next week's NCAA tournament, but Stallings said his senior-heavy squad accomplished so much more Sunday than postseason seeding.
"They have done things today, it's just -- today is just another thing," Stallings said. "They have done things for Vanderbilt basketball that have never been done before. They have raised the awareness of our program. They have raised the status of our program."
To their credit, the Wildcats said nothing to cheapen that accomplishment. It would be easy to shrug off the loss as meaningless. Kentucky had not lost a game since Dec. 10, and the thought has been kicked around the Big Blue Nation that another setback might do their young stars some good before making a national championship run.
To a man, the losing Wildcats insisted that wasn't the case.
"We played hard like it was our last game, every game of this tournament," said sophomore guard Doron Lamb. "The teams we played played us three times, so they knew what we were going to do, and they know everything we've got."
Even senior Darius Miller, who caught fire for 16 points, was unwilling to let the loss go as insignificant.
"We all hate losing. We're pretty competitive people," he said. "The overall vision is, did we win or lose? And we lost tonight."
There will be other games for both teams. When this year's brackets come out in a few short hours, the Final Four will become the focus and the conference tournaments will be nothing but an afterthought.
Just don't tell that to the Commodores.