Sunday, March 11, 2012
Rapid Reaction: Vanderbilt 71, Kentucky 64
By David Helman
NEW ORLEANS — Vanderbilt broke its 61-year championship dry spell Sunday with a 71-64 win against No. 1 Kentucky. Here are some quick impressions from the Selection Sunday upset.
Overview: Vanderbilt's bad first-half shooting against Georgia and Ole Miss seemed like a distant memory on Sunday. Just like Florida the day before, the Commodores came out firing on all cylinders against Kentucky.
Jeffery Taylor shook off the sting of two awful days in the quarters and semis to score 13 first-half points, and the Dores rode their good shooting to a lead as big as eight in the first half. Just like we've seen all weekend, the Wildcats' instincts kicked in when threatened, and they charged back to force a halftime tie. Kyle Wiltjer, whose name was hardly heard during the tournament, kicked in two big 3s to lead the rally.
Darius Miller earned just his 11th start of the season against the Commodores, and he responded by leading the Kentucky scoring effort.
Anthony Davis turned 19 on Sunday, and received a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" from about 15,000 Kentucky fans. Davis certainly looked like a teenager going against Vanderbilt fifth-year senior forward Festus Ezeli. Ezeli helped limit Davis to a pedestrian 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Terrence Jones sparked the Wildcats' offense in the second half for the third straight day with a pair of rousing dunks to swing momentum toward Kentucky. The Cats had several opportunities to put the game away in the dying minutes, whether it was one of Jones' dunks or a big 3 from Miller. With an enormously pro-Cats crowd, it seemed like the game was on the verge of breaking open at any minute.
Credit Taylor and Ezeli that it didn't. Ezeli continually managed to get Vandy to the line, and although he wasn't superb with his shots, it was enough. When Taylor hit a running layup to make it a 62-59 game with four to play, it was obvious the game would go down to the wire.
Turning point: The Dores were pretty mediocre from the foul line, which has been a season-long trend. But with the championship on the line, they delivered. Kedren Johnson put Vandy ahead when he drilled a running layup while being fouled to take a 64-62 lead. He hit the free throw to make it a three-point lead.
Moments later, with the lead cut back to two, Ezeli delivered two more big freebies to push the margin to four. The Wildcats started lofting (and missing) 3s, forcing them to foul. In the final 25 seconds, John Jenkins went 4-of-4 from the line to put the game out of reach.
Key player: After an awful, awful oh-for performance against Ole Miss, Ezeli shined brightly for Vandy in the post. The senior had 17 points and six rebounds, and was a clutch 7-of-10 from the free throw line when the Commodores needed points. His defensive effort on Davis cannot be understated. Ezeli imposed his will on the SEC Player of the Year in the paint, and forced Davis to settle for free throws.
It's a testament to the talent on Kentucky's roster that Darius Miller spent most of his season coming off the bench. The senior was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year at the conclusion of the regular season, but he was first-class on Sunday afternoon with 16 points, four assists and just one turnover.
Key stat: Kentucky shot just 35.9 percent from the field. Even worse than that, the Wildcats connected on just 6 of 28 treys.
Miscellaneous: Taylor more than doubled his point total from the Commodores' first two games of the tournament. He finished with 18 on the day.
What's next: Regardless of the setback, two-loss Kentucky is still assured a No. 1 seed in the coming NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt was a No. 5 seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology report. It will be interesting to see if a championship improves its standing.