With 1.1 seconds left, a glimmer of hope remained for a Commodore team that trailed big most of the game. But the Wildcats had an answer for that.
Kentucky sent an arsenal of players to jump out on John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli couldn't pull down Brad Tinsley's inbounds pass as the Wildcats moved a crucial step closer to a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament.
For a while it looked as though the 'Cats would close down Rupp Arena with a breezy victory. Vanderbilt trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half and used a spirited comeback to make this one even close. Missed layups and turnovers haunted the Commodores for the first 25 minutes of the game, as the team racked up eight early turnovers in a stale offensive effort.
However, Ezeli and Tinsley refused to let VU's scoring grind to a halt, and Jeffery Taylor was a difference maker on the defensive end, combining to form a three-headed monster that kept Kevin Stallings's team in this game. By the time John Jenkins came alive with 10 minutes to play, Vanderbilt was primed to take the lead. They grabbed a 60-59 lead with just over four minutes to play, but couldn't push their advantage to more than one point. Just as quickly as it had come, the team's momentum was gone.
Vanderbilt's dynamic offense went flat over the final two minutes, and while they defended well, Kentucky did just enough to win - getting key free throws from Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones to push their lead to three points on a pair of occasions. Vandy countered with a quick two and then a solid look inside to Ezeli, but an unfortunate turnover doomed the 'Dores. Vanderbilt trailed by three when John Calipari decided to foul, putting Tinsley on the line for two shots. Tins made the first and intentionally missed the second, but couldn't secure the rebound.
Vandy earned one final shot when Jones was called for traveling on the ensuing inbounds, but couldn't capitalize against a well-prepared Wildcat defense.
It'll go down in the books as a loss, but there were confidence-building moments in the second half as Vanderbilt was finally the team climbing back from a huge deficit instead of the ones giving it up. Festus Ezeli had a monster night with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks while Brad Tinsley had an efficient nine assist, zero turnover showing at the point. Jenkins and Taylor finished with 16 and 13, respectively, in a pair of relatively disappointing outings for each player.
The 'Dores missed a key opportunity to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding and make their path through the SEC Tournament easier with a win. Now, they'll have to come up big for their own Senior Night this weekend. With the loss, Vanderbilt falls to 9-6 in the SEC and will have to defeat Florida Saturday - and root for a Tennessee win over UK - to earn the #2 seed in the conference tournament. No word on whether Andre Walker would be available for either, as the redshirt junior failed to log a minute in Rupp Arena tonight.