Jeffery Taylor had the chance to put this team on his back. With 2:43 to play in a tightly contested game, the senior stepped to the free throw line with a chance to cut the Kentucky lead to two points and deflate a rabid Wildcat crowd whose enthusiasm ebbed and flowed with the UK lead.
Seconds later, Kentucky led by six and the Commodores were out of the game.
Taylor's missed free throws and Lance Goulbourne's ensuing foul handed the top-ranked Wildcats a six point lead and gave Vanderbilt an obstacle that the team couldn't overcome. This swing was the turning point of the game, marking the momentum when Vandy went from confident upstart to desperate underdog. The worst part? It hinged on the two guys who put the Commodores in the position to pull the upset.
Goulbourne and Taylor were the driving force behind the team's efforts on Saturday, lifting the team up with hustle plays and keeping the 'Dores in the game with big baskets. Taylor was once again a presence on both ends of the floor, playing hip-to-hip man defense on future lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and scoring 19 points despite shooting just 20 percent (!!!) from the free throw line. Kidd-Gilchrist has averaged six points ber game against Taylor so far this year - he's averaged 12.4 per game against all other opponents in 2011-2012.
Goulbourne's play was an especially strong performance where you consider his past. When we last saw the senior PF against Kentucky and Terrence Jones, he was being held to 1-9 shooting while Jones put together one of his best games of the season. On Saturday, Goulbourne worked hard to get both Jones and backup Darius Miller in foul trouble early. He also showed off his defensive chops, disrupting passing lanes and sniping four steals on the afternoon. Though he finished with just 11 points and six rebounds, he was the consumate glue guy that the team needed when Vandy's "big three" couldn't get their shots to fall.
John Jenkins's deep threes and Festus Ezeli's inspired second-half play also played key roles for the Commodores, but the team was driven by their forwards in Rupp Arena. Goulbourne will need to tap into the reserves that made him so much more valuable than any stat line would suggest. Taylor will have to shake the demons that caused him to miss two different pairs of free throws as time wound down in a tight game. Both players have the physical talents to change games, and both have been able to pull this team up for victories in 2012. Can they tap in to the mindset that harnesses this terror mode when the biggest games of the season roll around in March?
Vanderbilt's fate is going to hinge on that question.
Two more things we've learned from Vandy/UK are after the jump...
So we're just not going to defend in the paint? Vanderbilt got crushed around the rim, and their porous defense inside the arc gave Kentucky plenty of easy baskets and ultimately was the difference in a UK win. Marquis Teague consistently beat Brad Tinsley off the dribble and got into the lane to set up layups for his teammates, and Vanderbilt's help defense was always a step behind the uber-quick Wildcats. These lapses allowed Kentucky to shoot 65.2 percent on their two-point attempts.
Closing up that hole is a tough task against a team with a great frontcourt like Kentucky. Vanderbilt will have to prove that they can shore up that weakness in their next two games against a depleted Florida team and a resurgent Tennessee squad. Both have solid but not dominant forwards and quick guards who can replicate some of what Teague brought to the Wildcat matchup. If the Commodores can limit those teams in the interior on their way to the SEC Tournament, we'll be able to write off Saturday's problems as the result of a bad game against a simply dominant opponent. If not, then we'll have to rethink this team's chances in the postseason.
Dai-Jon Parker showed us why he was a top-50 recruit. With about three minutes to go in the first half, Parker caught the ball in the corner, gave a quick fake, and drove to the rim for an easy layup against a very strong Kentucky defense. In the second half, he complimented that with an ultra-athletic catch and layup at the rim to cut UK's lead to three points.
The two plays were a departure from the focused defense and wild threes that Commodore fans have been accustomed to this season. The freshman looked extraordinarily composed for an occasionally frazzled player who was making his first ever trip to Rupp Arena. Parker played with confidence and expanded his game against the Wildcats, putting together a solid 10 minutes off the bench and giving this team a spark for 2012-2013. Even if John Jenkins comes back for his senior season, Parker's playing time is in line to double in his sophomore campaign.