Vandy wins SEC tourney title as Kentucky goes 'ice cold'

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 11, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — For the third time in a month, a Kentucky-Vanderbilt game came down to a test of execution and nerve in the final minutes. In other words, except for that made-for-ESPN three-point buzzer-beater by Indiana's Christian Watford, winning time for No. 1 Kentucky.

But for the first time in an entertaining 120-minute UK-Vandy tug of war, the Commodores made the key plays and key stops.

And for the first time since 1951, Vanderbilt won the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Facing a resilient Kentucky team playing in what Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings called "Rupp Arena South," the Commodores limited UK to no baskets in the final 8:04 to rally to a 71-64 victory. That led John Calipari to use the word "arrogance" and note the tastiness of humble pie.

"Maybe now everybody realizes we're not invincible," the UK coach said.

"We're like everybody else out there. We're going to have to execute. We're going to have to play hard. We're going to have to play with some aggressiveness and intensity or we will get beat."

UK, which lost for only the second time in 34 games, led 62-55 with barely five minutes left. Yet, Vandy had what it wanted: a chance.

"That was the big emphasis the coaches talked about," guard Brad Tinsley said. "We wanted to keep the game close."

Freshman Kedren Johnson, who took only one shot in 17 scoreless minutes in the two regular-season games, scored four of his six points down the stretch. His three-point play on a drive past Marquis Teague gave Vandy a 65-62 lead to protect with 90 seconds left.

"The coaches had been telling us to push it," Johnson said of his transition basket. "I saw (Anthony) Davis wasn't in the lane."

Davis, the SEC's Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, helped protect the three-point line. So Johnson drove.

"Now the pressure is squarely on their shoulders," Stallings said. "And that's the position you want to be in."

The pressure showed as Kentucky missed its last 13 shots.

"We just went ice cold," Teague said. "Like there was a lid on the bucket."

Continuing an SEC Tournament trend, halftime led Kentucky to ponder a competitive game. UK, which led LSU and Florida by one point at intermission Friday and Saturday, found itself tied 37-37 at halftime.

"I was disappointed at halftime," Calipari said. "I thought we should have been up about 10. And what I told them (was) there you go again, and give a team a chance to think that they got hope."

Foul trouble contributed to Kentucky's situation. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis, team leaders despite being freshmen, each picked up two first-half fouls.

The half featured a revival for both teams. Darius Miller, who failed to score in UK's first two games here, scored eight of his team-high 16 points in the half.

For Vandy, the new-found production came from Jeffery Taylor. After making only two of 15 shots in the first two games here, he made six of 13 en route to a game-high 18. He also grabbed 11 rebounds to post his first double-double since the season's opener.

Festus Ezeli's rebound-dunk (Terrence Jones failed to rotate and block off the Vandy center) gave the Commodores the game's largest lead: 26-18 with 5:20 left in the first half.

Freshman Kyle Wiltjer's eight points helped Kentucky rally. The Cats took their largest lead at 62-55 when Davis made one of two free throws with 5:23 left.

Thereafter, Vandy outscored Kentucky 16-2.

"We should have tried to get the ball inside," Teague said of Kentucky's misfires down the stretch. "We settled for too many outside shots."

UK's 28 three-point attempts — second most of the season — played into Vandy's plans.

"We wanted them to beat us from outside," Stallings said.

Noting Calipari's warnings about arrogance, Teague pled guilty. When asked if the Cats were overconfident, he said, "You could say that."

In a subdued UK locker room, the players spoke of the focus shifting to the NCAA Tournament. Doron Lamb said the Cats must now "get ready for the big tournament."

More than one UK player was asked if the hackneyed notion of a late-season loss being beneficial applied.

"I don't like any loss," said Jones, who averaged a double-double in the SEC Tournament (14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds). "I could have done without it."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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