NEW ORLEANS — Teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist volunteered to come off the bench so senior Darius Miller could start for Kentucky on Sunday. Coach John Calipari decided to do just that. Miller responded with a 16-point performance.
But Vanderbilt ruined the sweet story line by beating UK 71-64 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.
"That's the kind of young man he is," Calipari said of Kidd-Gilchrist's gesture. "He's special. ... And he's got a good heart.
"He's just got that caring kind of heart, the kind of guy that makes a great teammate."
Miller had gone scoreless in UK's first two games in the tournament. Whether to jump-start Miller or spur his team playing a third game in three days, Calipari decided to change the lineup.
Whatever the motivation, Miller expressed appreciation for Kidd-Gilchrist's offer.
"That really meant a lot to me, showing that he was with me, showing the support that he gave me," Miller said. "And Coach allowing me to start the day also showed me support. That kind of gave me confidence."
Freshman Kyle Wiltjer contributed eight points, including a pair of three-pointers to help UK rally from an early 26-18 deficit.
Later, Wiltjer played off the three-pointers by using a pump fake to lift Lance Goulbourne and go by the defender for a floater in the lane.
"Just confidence," Wiltjer said of the scores.
Vandy center Festus Ezeli found it hard to explain his joy.
"I can't even fathom the feeling right now," he said after the game. Then he added with a sigh, "Man.
"We didn't want to go home and feel we didn't do the best we could."
Ezeli, who is listed as 35 pounds heavier than Anthony Davis, credited bulk as a factor in his 17-point, six-rebound game.
"I'm a big, strong dude," Ezeli said with a bright smile.
Ezeli noted how he'd changed his approach in the three games against Davis and UK.
"In the first game, I tried to use that (bulk)," he said. "In the second game, I tried finesse. That didn't work very well."
So Ezeli returned to a physical game.
"He looked like a professional center," Tinsley said.
Davis gave a concise response when asked how Ezeli's approach evolved from game one to game three against Kentucky.
"Demanded the ball more," he said. "That's it."
Familiarity breeds fatigue
Calipari welcomed the chance at fresh faces in the NCAA Tournament.
"We're not going to be playing each other in the NCAA Tournament," the UK coach said. "These (SEC) teams, we all know each other. And that's why they become wars and that's why they're low-scoring games."
Maybe that's why Calipari lamented the timing of the loss.
"I wish this would have happened yesterday, so we'd get home a day earlier," he said.
As for the NCAA Tournament, Calipari said, "We won't know the team we're playing. So it's a little different atmosphere and a little bit different way the game will play out."
Calipari's contract calls for a $50,000 bonus when UK wins the SEC Tournament.
Tinsley noted that the SEC Tournament marked his first championship on any level.
It was Vandy's first SEC Tournament title since 1951 and second ever.
Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings noted the achievement in beating No. 1 Kentucky.
"They've got a great team," he said. "So we're proud to have beaten them. Proud to have won an SEC championship."
The title capped a trying season for Vandy, which played without Ezeli the first eight games, lost home games to Cleveland State and Xavier, then tumbled out of the top 25.
"We have been the target of much criticism," Stallings said. "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 sharpshooter John Jenkins lay on the court for a few minutes after the final buzzer.
"I had a tough week with my grandmother dying last week," he said. "So that's what all that emotion was coming from. It's been really tough for me. ... So to win the championship after 60-some years is incredible."
In three SEC Tournament games, Jenkins made 16 of 41 shots (11 of 32 from three-point range) and averaged 18.3 points.