An ugly loss as Kentucky now begins NCAA Tournament play.
The hunt for another SEC Tournament title ended Friday night as Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 80-73 in the quarterfinals at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Kentucky, 21-11, has now lost twice to Vanderbilt in the past nine days after falling 68-66 last week at home on Senior Night. Ironically, it was largely the same game plan for coach Vandy Jerry Stackhouse, who was recently named SEC co-coach of the year as the Commodores scored more than half of his points. on the three-point line and split the Wildcats. to attack the rim and score on easy lay-ups.
After a sloppy start for both teams, Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves hit three straight runs to give the Wildcats a 14-4 lead at 1:32. Vanderbilt then responded with his own 8-0 run on a pair of three-pointers sandwiched between a jumper in the lane to cut the lead to 14-12.
The Commodores would cut the lead to 28-27 before a pull-up from Cason Wallace, a driving lay-up from Reeves and a mid-range shot from Oscar Tshiebwe extended the advantage to 34-27.
Once again, Vandy fought back and scored seven straight points in just 47 seconds to tie the game at 34-all with 1:42 remaining at halftime.
Tshiebwe was then called for a flagrant foul, his second in as many games, as the Commodores hit two free throws and a three-pointer on the horn as Vandy led 39-34 at halftime on a 12-run. 0 to close halftime.
Vanderbilt attacked to start the second half, scoring on his first possession, followed by a jumper and a driving layup to take a 45-36 lead before a quick Kentucky timeout just 1 :30 seconds into the game. A three-pointer gave Vandy his biggest lead at 52-40.
The Wildcats cut it to 52-46 on a steal and finger roll from Tshiebwe and eventually had a chance to get under three downs, but Toppin missed two free throws with 34.1 seconds left as Vandy held on to seal the win.
Off to the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt warms up behind the arc
Vanderbilt’s offense was looking for a knockout blow against the Wildcats and found it with a three-point shootout to beat the Wildcats in two of three games this year. The Commodores were 7 of 15 in the first half (46.7%) and extended the ground to attack the rim as most of Vandy’s points were either three-point bombs or lay-ups, most of which were too easy.
Wallace returns from injury to add depth at point guard
After missing the season finale at Arkansas through injury, Wallace came back to run the point and provided lift with his clutch jumpers and scrappy defense. Wallace, the team’s only real playmaker in Sahvir Wheeler’s absence, played most of the game despite a tough few weeks on the sidelines.
The Dallas native, considered an NBA lottery pick by pundits, has been outstanding all season and was recently named to the All-SEC Freshman team along with Chris Livingston.
Jacob Toppin brings great energy as the only bright spot
Toppin just missed a double-double in the first half, picking up 10 points and nine rebounds as the Rhode Island transfer was active at both ends of the court. In a streak midway through the first half, the 6-foot-9 forward hit a three, scored on an offensive stick back and lobbed for an easy field goal from Antonio Reeves to give the Wildcats a 28-22 lead. Toppin finished with his eighth double-double and scored in double figures for the 22nd time this season. He entered the game averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
What’s next for the Wildcats?
Instead of playing Texas A&M on Saturday in the semifinals, the Wildcats now have to sit back and wait to see where they end up on draft Sunday. Kentucky has enough Quad 1 wins to enter the tournament, but will be at the mercy of the seeding committee.
No matter where the Wildcats end up, they’ll need to get healthy and find a way to bolster their three-point defense to have a chance of winning their first NCAA game in the last three years.