When he stepped down from the podium after his post-game news conference at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, Kevin Stallings issued something of a fond farewell.
"I hope you enjoyed the game," said the Vanderbilt basketball coach.
He meant it.
And Stallings' team lost.
Now that's the way to celebrate Jorts' Day.
That's the way to finish off an undefeated home season, playing a hard-fought, back-and-forth, down-to-the-wire college basketball game, in Stallings' own words "a great college basketball game," with host Kentucky holding off visiting Vanderbilt 68-66 in Rupp Arena.
The pre-game story had been all about Josh Harrellson, and his jean shorts and his goofy personality and his Cinderella story of going from a glued-to-the-bench no-factor last season to a starter and regular contributor this campaign. Not only that, but Harrellson went from obscure bench-warmer to one of the more popular blue-collar players in Kentucky basketball history, which is saying something.
But the game itself said something else. This was serious business, an important game for both teams, with not just SEC Tournament seedings but NCAA Tournament seedings on the line. Thanks to its road woes and 8-6 conference mark with a travel date at Tennessee set for Sunday, Kentucky couldn't afford a home-floor loss to the talented Commodores.
So after Harrellson and what seemed like a small army — the Jorts Army — of family and friends participated in the traditional Senior Night ceremony, the Cats got down to the business of playing one of their best halves of the entire season.
They committed just one turnover. Their defense kept the same Vanderbilt team that made 11 of 20 threes in the Commodores' win in Nashville from making a single trey in the first half.
"We gave up the twos to keep them from shooting the threes," said UK Coach John Calipari.
Intermission score: Kentucky 40, Vanderbilt 29.
But this Kentucky team being this Kentucky team, it didn't last. The Cats started the second half as comatose as James Franco on Oscars night. Vanderbilt surged. John Jenkins, who lit up UK for 32 points in Music City, hit a couple of shots. Festus Ezeli, Vandy's 6-foot-11 junior center, picked up where he left off in the first half, making point-blank buckets.
With 4:25 remaining, Vanderbilt had taken a 60-59 lead, and you could almost feel all the oxygen being drained from the Rupp Arena crowd.
Ah, but the team that had lost so many close games over the past two months somehow found a way to win this close game. Freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones combined to make seven of eight free throws in the final 1:36. Harrellson tightened up his defense on Ezeli in the final 24 seconds, especially the final 1.1 when the 'Dores tried an inbounds lob — when inbounds plays had been killing the Cats — to Ezeli that Kentucky defended against perfectly to get the win.
Yes, it was a case of survival. Yes, it was a case of holding on. Yes, it was a case of seeing just how far these tired legs would go. But that's what March is all about, and this is March 1, and these young Cats, now tied with Vandy for second place, actually have a shot at a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.
And Stallings, he wanted to win, sure, but the Commodores coach was happy his team fought back to carry the decision right to the end.
"I really, really liked how we competed and how we fought," he said.
Not that it's going to get any easier from here on in.
"(Sunday) is going to be hard for this team," lamented Calipari afterward, talking about the trip to Tennessee.
Of course it's hard. It if were easy, any team could do it.
This time of the year in college basketball, that's the joyful part.
Happy Jorts Day, indeed.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.