Red-hot Vandy gives Kentucky early exit in SEC Tournament

Published 4:21 pm Wednesday, March 15, 2023

It was a short stay for Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

For the second time in less than two weeks, Vanderbilt dealt the Wildcats a crushing defeat, this time, handing Kentucky an early exit from the conference tournament with an 80-73 victory Friday night in Nashville.

“Vandy deserved to beat us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They made their free throws. We missed ours. They made unbelievable plays down the stretch of shot clock and we didn’t. We outrebounded them, did some good stuff. Got to throw daggers this time of the year. You got to take care of what’s in front of you, and we didn’t tonight.”

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The Commodores ended a 14-game losing streak to the Wildcats with a 68-66 win on March 1 at Rupp Arena and solidified their chances for an NCAA Tournament bid with a rare second straight victory over Kentucky. The Wildcats defeated Vandy 77-71 last year in the tournament quarterfinals in Tampa.

Kentucky has struggled in the postseason recently and has compiled a 1-4 mark in its last five conference tournament games.

Vanderbilt (20-14) lost Saturday in the semifinals to Texas A&M and was left out of the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores will play in the NIT. Kentucky (21-11) earned a No. 6 seed in the tournament and will play Providence on Friday in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Kentucky led by 10 at 14-4 in the first half, but Vandy stormed back and closed the first half with a 12-0 run and led 39-34 at the break. The lead increased to 12 in the second half, while the Wildcats couldn’t get closer than four down the stretch.

Despite a 43-26 edge in the glass, Kentucky missed ine free throws on 20 attempts, while the Commdores connected on 10 shots from long range, including seven in the first half that paved the way the Commodores’ successful comeback.

Antonio Reeves, who scored 37 points in the team’s regular season finale at Arkansas last Saturday, led the Wildcats with 22 points. Jacob Toppin recorded a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Oscar Tshiebwe added 19 points and 15 rebounds.

Cason Wallace returned from an ankle injury he suffered in the loss to Vanderbilt in Lexington and finished with seven points and five assists and four rebounds.

“We probably need to get healthy,” Calipari said. “Having some time off may play in our hands, even though I’m not happy with the outcome of the game. But we got to get everybody healthy and go on this next run.”

Ezra Manjon led all scorers with 25 points, followed by Jordan Wright and Tyrin Lawrence with 18 points each. Four players made two or more 3-pointers for the Commodores. Vanderbilt also made 18 of 20 free throws, including seven in the final two minutes.

“That was an unbelievable game to be a part of,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “Both teams were battling, a lot of ups and downs in that game. They got off to a quick start. We continued to battle and weather the storm. Found a rhythm ourselves.

The Commodores have won 10 of their last 11 games going into Saturday’s tournament semifinals.

“They played for their lives,” Calipari said. “They’re an NCAA tournament team now. I think they were before this game.”

Kentucky now awaits its next game, which will be announced Sunday.

“We gave ourselves a chance (and) I’m disappointed,” he said. “It will take me 24 hours to get through this, and let’s go and we’ll prepare for the next tournament.”