Vanderbilt showed some heart on Saturday. They battled back from a 13-point halftime deficit to give the top-ranked team in the country all that they could handle on a nationally-televised stage. Unfortunately for the Commodores, old habits reared their heads as time wound down. A scoreless streak in the game's final minutes doomed this team to their eighth loss of the season.
Kentucky's early success came through preparation and talent. Coach John Calipari had his Wildcats ready for Vandy's gameplan, which revolved around early touches for Festus Ezeli. Kevin Stallings planned to take it at freshman player of the year candidate Anthony Davis from the start behind his All-SEC big man. However, UK was ready, swarming with triple teams whenever Ezeli got a touch and forcing bad shots and turnovers early in the game. They forced the Commodores to shoot jumpers and then strode out to a double-digit lead when those shots weren't falling.
Vanderbilt adjusted at the half and then rode their home-team momentum to turn a 34-20 deficit into a 55-51 lead in just 13 minutes of game time. Whatever Stallings's halftime speech was, it worked, flipping the switch from blowout to dogfight amidst a frenzied Memorial Gym atmosphere. Kentucky's swarming defense, now beset by foul trouble, opened up against the play of Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins's high-energy play and solid shooting.
Taylor was especially effective on the night, limiting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to just four points on defense and leading the rally to give the Commodores the lead late in the second half. He was responsible for 17 of the team's 24 points (11 points, two assists on three-point plays) that took the team from an 11-point disadvantage to a tie game. More importantly, he did it from all over the court, scoring on dunks, jumpers, and long-range threes.
Taylor's heroics wouldn't be enough, though. Kentucky adjusted and clamped down on the 'Dores as time wound down, leaving them stuck at 63 points from 4:09 until the buzzer sounded. The Wildcats missed free throws down the stretch that kept Vandy's hope alive, but 0-9 shooting in the final minutes doomed Vanderbilt. It was a slump similar to those that sunk this team in losses to Louisville and Indiana State.
So how should Vanderbilt fans address this loss? Should we be upset that clutch shooting was once again a factor as this team dropped another second-half lead? Should we be happy that we battled back against a more talented Kentucky team and nearly recorded a fifth-straight win over a #1 ranked opponent at Memorial Gym? For me, I started off more in the latter camp but I'm drifting closer to the former as time passes by. Vanderbilt was in a great position to win that game - a defining win for a team that lacks an identity in 2012 - but they let it slip away. Stop me if you've heard that one before.
Still, it was a strong display of heart and an especially convincing performance from Taylor. He has all the talent to put this team on his back for a postseason run. More importantly, he's got a supporting cast that can feed off his energy and take advantage of the open looks he creates both inside and out. Vanderbilt lost Saturday night, and they did it in the way that Vanderbilt typically has lost in 2011-2012. However, that loss is glistening with hope as this team gets tougher. Can they build off this? We'll see in three weeks when the SEC Tournament rolls around.
Two more things we learned from Vandy/UK are after the jump...
The UK2GAY controversy. Leading up to Saturday's game, fans across the country were disgusted by homophobic t-shirts being sold online. Kentucky Sports Radio and OutSports were amongst those who connected "UK2GAY" shirts to Vanderbilt fans, suggesting that Commodore nation was behind the shirts and planning to wear them to their College Gameday showdown with the Wildcats.
The shirts were offensive, juvenile, and hateful. In fact, the uproar grew so strongly that GLAAD felt the need to intervene and reach out to Vanderbilt's administration. Their determination? That the shirts, while vile and homophobic, had no definite link to Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt students, or Vanderbilt fans.
The problem was that not only that the shirts themselves may be completely apocryphal, but that they may not have any connection to Vanderbilt whatsoever. The UK2GAY shirts that caused the uproar were a Cafe Press venture. Cafe Press is an online shop where anyone can submit non-copyrighted designs and have them screen-printed onto t-shirts, sweaters, mugs, and other items for a hefty price. Cafe Press houses designs, but they can promote products without ever printing them up until an order is placed. It's entirely possible, if not likely, that the promoters behind "UK2GAY" never saw one sale, and thus never shipped or even made a single t-shirt.
Listen, if these shirts are the product of some immature Vanderbilt fans, that's shameful. However, a simple search of "UK2GAY" suggests that this juvenile phrase has been around for quite some time and isn't tied to one specific group of people besides childish idiots who hate Kentucky. Here's a story with some Louisville fans using the slogan on signs at the Yum! Center last season. Here's a listing of four different UK2GAY facebook groups that all existed well before this week. In fact, the homophobic logo is a parody dating back to the year 2009, when it marked the team's 2,000th victory.
I didn't see any "UK2GAY" shirts in either the Gameday or game broadcasts on Saturday. No one I've heard from inside Memorial Gym has reported seeing these shirts in person either. If they exist, that's immature and offensive. If they're actually tied to Vanderbilt? That's disgusting. However, so far we have no indication that that's the case. This appears to be a case of the media jumping all over a story without a credible source. It happens, but in this case it's gone on to taint the reputation of our university and our fans.
Anthony Davis wins this round. Davis is a special player. That's not exactly a novel statement, but any doubts that I had were erased after his performance against Festus Ezeli and the Vandy frontline Saturday night.
Despite giving up 40+ pounds to the big Nigerian, the freshman refused to be bullied in the post and kept his position around the rim. His body control, particularly his ability to affect shots from two steps away without fouling, is possibly the most impressive aspect of his game. Jason Fukuda and "Tim in Surrey" have also pointed out another special piece of Davis's work - his ability to defend both sides of the pick-and-roll.
Davis sprung for 15 points, eight rebounds, and seven blocks (though one or two of those blocks may have been mis-assigned) against the best big man the SEC could throw at him. Ezeli finished with 13 points, six boards, and two blocks. Did Ezeli's gimpy knees limit his performance against the potential NCAA Player of the Year? He didn't look too slow on Saturday, but we'll have a better idea when these two meet again in Rupp Arena - and hopefully in New Orleans for the SEC Tournament. It'll be a big time rematch for a couple of players who should end up meeting again in the NBA next year.