Vanderbilt silences Kentucky fans, critics

NEW ORLEANS-- A funny thing happened on the way to the Kentucky coronation party. A throng of Wildcat fans had packed the New Orleans Arena to watch their beloved Big Blue ascend to its seemingly inevitable position as conference tournament champs.

Whoa! Not this time, UK fans.

John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor combined for 52 points, as a resolute Vanderbilt team upset No. 1 Kentucky Sunday to win the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament. In winning the school's first SEC tournament title since 1951, Kevin Stallings' Commodores avenged a pair of bitter losses to the Wildcats, gained an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and rocked the college basketball world.

Seldom if ever do the wins get much sweeter.

As time expired, John Jenkins fell to the hardcourt and buried his face. Amidst one of the wildest postgame celebrations I've ever witnessed, the emotions came pouring out of Jenkins-- and his emotions mirrored those of loyal Vanderbilt basketball followers.

"I had a tough week with my grandmother dying last week, so that's where all that emotion was coming from," said Jenkins, who was later named tournament MVP. "It's been really tough for me. So just being out here with my teammates and the coaches has been kind of an outlet for me. To win the championship after 60-some years is incredible."

Yes, they silenced a lot of critics Sunday, even some among Commodore loyalists-- critics who had said the team had failed to live up to its estimable potential in the regular season. After finishing the regular season with a loss at Tennessee, few observers were expecting Vandy even to survive until Sunday, much less upset mighty UK.

"These seniors have done things for Vanderbilt basketball that have never been done before," said Stallings. "They have raised the awareness and status of our program. They have made us relevant on a national level. All anybody wants to talk about is the last two years, last two first-round [NCAA] losses, and they deserve a lot better than that.

"I'm sure today will help alleviate some of that naysaying. But they deserve better than that. They have done everything for our program and they have done it while being absolutely model human beings, and you couldn't ask for a better group of young men."

In two previous meetings, it was Kentucky which had knuckled down in crunch time and gutted out close victories. On Sunday it was the same situation, another white-knuckler with 2:30 to go-- but this time the Commodores turned the tables. Freshman Kedren Johnson put the Commodores ahead to stay with a three-point play, and the Commodore defense put the clamps on the Wildcats the rest of the way to earn the 71-64 win.

This time, Vandy's team of seasoned veterans prevailed against John Calipari's stellar cast of one-and-doners.

"I congratulate John and Kentucky," said Stallings. "Those guys have been absolutely dominant, dominant like I haven't seen before in all my years in college basketball. Dominant in our league this year, and nationally, too. They won the league by six games, for goodness sakes.

"We played them two tough games, and I thought that we were the team that had the best chance to beat them. I thought that all season long. But Kedren made several big plays for us at the end of the game and came up with a loose ball and got fouled, made the one-and-one. He made some big plays for us going down the stretch."

After getting just two points out of Taylor and nothing out of Ezeli on Saturday, Stallings challenged his seniors, saying "Marquee players need to play like marquee players." Ezeli (17 points, 6 rebounds) and Taylor (18 points, 11 rebounds) both turned in excellent performances Sunday, coming up big when it mattered most.

"Our team is like that proverbial box of chocolates," said Stallings. "You just don't know.

"I would like to say that I know and I would like to say that they're the pillars of consistency, but they're not. That was the same Festus Ezeli today that went scoreless yesterday. And the same Jeffery Taylor that scored two points yesterday. So good for them that on an occasion like this they could rise up and give us a great game."

For the 250 or so Vandy fans in attendance, the win set off a giddy celebration. I've been following Vanderbilt around at the Southeastern Conference Tournament for decades now, and I can't tell you how good it felt to hear the VU Alma Mater after this game rather than "My Old Kentucky Home." For the first time since the SEC Tournament was revived in 1979, it was the Commodores taking the big trophy from Mike Slive, the Commodores climbing the ladder to cut down the nets.

The celebration will be short-lived. It's off to Albuquerque Thursday to play in "the tournament that really counts." But don't try to tell this team-- or this fan base-- that conference tournaments have lost their luster. The Commodores got a golden opportunity on the national stage Sunday, and they seized it.

Just one week ago, Vandy fans' expectations for an extended NCAA run had dropped to just about nil. Today, as those same fans filtered out of New Orleans, they were suddenly consumed by one tantalizing thought:

If the Commodores can knock off the nation's No. 1 team... what team is out there in the field of 68 that Vandy can't beat?

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