Kentucky’s Senior Night ceremony is about ending one chapter of life and looking ahead to the next.
But Derek Willis took this essence of Senior Night to uncharted territory Tuesday.
After the customary paper hoop, framed jersey and warm applause, Willis dropped to a knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Keely Potts. Potts, a member of UK’s dance team as a freshman, hestitated.
“At first, she was, like, are you serious?” Willis said after Kentucky beat Vanderbilt.
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Willis replied, “Yeah, honey. Let’s do it right now.”
Willis pulled out the ring and tried to place it on Potts’ shaky hand.
“I said, gollee, stay still for a second,” Willis said. “I’m nervous, too.”
Potts, a senior from Louisville, said Willis had dropped hints recently.
“The other day, ‘Marry Me’ by Jason Derulo came on,” she said of the song. “I said, oh my gosh, I love that song. Derek said, ‘We don’t need to listen to it. No one’s getting married soon.’”
Willis also referred to her as “the wife” in a recent Instagram posting, Potts said.
A final hint came on the eve of Senior Night. “He told me to bring a box of tissues,” Potts said.
Potts did not cry, but shortly after the proposal, she still seemed stunned.
“I don’t feel my stomach,” she said before trying to put into words her feelings. “I don’t know how I feel,” she said.
Willis and Potts began dating in November of 2014.
Unbeknownst to Potts, Willis called her father at 12:03 a.m. on Feb. 24 to ask his permission to propose.
John Potts said he gave his permission, then rolled over and went back to sleep.
UK Coach John Calipari knew the proposal was coming.
Still, “I got emotional,” he said. “I looked at that, and it’s like one of your sons is getting married. And I started getting teared up, and I talked to myself a little bit.”
When asked what Potts meant to him, Willis said, “Everything. Just helped me, honestly. My best friend. I went through a lot of ups and downs. Lot more downs than ups. She helped me through all that stuff. So I could never repay her for that.”
Calipari received a technical foul with 15:18 left. It came as a result of a Luke Kornet elbow that brushed across Isaiah Briscoe’s face.
Kornet, whose father played for Lexington Catholic High and grandfather taught at UK, insisted he did not mean to elbow Briscoe.
“I was just trying to really just move the ball to the other side,” Kornet said. “I don’t throw elbows. That’s not something I do.”
Briscoe did not dispute Kornet’s contention. But, he said, “That’s what I did against Florida, and I got called for a tech. What’s the difference?”
Calipari said he was trying to stand up for Briscoe.
“I thought he got smacked in the face,” Calipari said. “That’s why I did it. You know, you’ve got to protect your guys.”
The defeat was Vandy’s 38th against Kentucky in 40 games in Rupp Arena.
When asked Monday about Vandy’s poor record at UK, Coach Bryce Drew said, “I don’t think it’s just us. Everybody in the country has a hard time going into (Rupp). … We don’t really look at stats. We worry about our team executing and playing as well as we can.”
First trip to Rupp
The game was Drew’s first in Rupp Arena.
“My brother (Scott) had an opportunity to play there a few years ago with Baylor, and actually gave Coach Cal his first loss in Rupp,” the Vandy coach said of Baylor’s 64-55 victory at UK on Dec. 1, 2012. “Hopefully he doesn’t take that out on me in the future.”
Vandy had a 9-11 record on Jan. 25. Since then, the Commodores had won seven of nine games before coming to Kentucky.
When asked to explain the surge, Nolan Cressler said, “Probably just one word would be resiliency. We had some growing pains.”
Eight of Vandy’s 13 losses had come by eight or fewer points.
In explaining Monday that Vandy players had not been obsessed with bracketology, guard Nolan Cressler said, “It’s in our heads, but we’re not playing each game and coming back to the locker room, like, ‘Where does Joe DeNardo have us in the standings?’”
Cressler meant ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. But there is a Joe DeNardo. He was an iconic TV weatherman in Pittsburgh, which is Cressler’s hometown.
By the way, DeNardo lives in Calipari’s hometown of Moon Township, Pa.
When a reporter asked if playing No. 9 Kentucky to the final seconds on Senior Night might be a plus in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, Drew said, “Boy, I’d love to have you on the committee because you’d help us, it seems.
“At the end of the day, we need to get more wins.”