It hurts now, because it was so close. But Vanderbilt might look back on Saturday's heartbreaker down the road and smile.
No. 2 Kentucky swaggered into a raucous Memorial Gym Saturday evening and escaped with a 58-56 victory over the 17th-ranked Commodores, giving the Wildcats a stranglehold on a chance for an outright Southeastern Conference Championship.
But there was so much more to this thriller at Memorial Gym, the first Vanderbilt had lost at home this season. It burns to lose this one, but the grittiness of Vanderbilt's effort shows that this team still has something to prove.
In a game that wasn't pretty, the Commodores stayed with the highly touted Wildcats from the opening tip. Vanderbilt couldn't hit the broad side of a barn from the field, had its big men in foul trouble almost the entire second half, and still had a shot to win with seconds remaining.
Neither team was playing at nearly its best. Neither could separate from the other (the biggest lead in this one was 6 points). And neither backed down from every punch thrown by the opposition. The result was 11 lead changes, 14 ties and a breathless crowd that was on its feet for just about every minute of this slugfest.
Despite having fouled out Steve Tchiengang and Festus Ezeli with three minutes remaining and having a four-point lead, Kentucky couldn't pull away. The Commodores got back-to-back layups by Jermaine Beal and Andre Walker to tie things back up before Kentucky pulled in front again.
With just 20 seconds remaining however, John Wall hit two free throws to give the Wildcats a seemingly insurmountable four-point lead.
The Commodores didn't blink, as John Jenkins hit just Vanderbilt's second 3-pointer of the afternoon from the corner to get within one at 57-56.
And after two missed free throws with 11.4 seconds left by Kentucky's normally sure-handed Eric Bledsoe, it seemed Memorial Magic might be at work again.
But Beal passed up a shot at driving to the basket on the ensuing possession, dishing to Jenkins for a 3 which was blocked by Wall. Wall hit just one free throw after being fouled, but A.J. Ogilvy's last-ditch shot off an ingenious inbounds play was just off the mark.
And that was that.
Watching gold-clad fans shuffle quietly out of the gym, so sure they were going to see a last-second miracle, was off-putting, strange.
They were grumbling no doubt. In a two-point loss, all you can do is count the what-ifs, whether it was a questionable call or a poor decision on offense. It'll drive you crazy. You want my advice? Don't think about the what-ifs. Think about what actually took place, and you might wind up happy.
A quick look at Vanderbilt's offensive stats indicates the Commodores should have been blown out of the building. They shot 2-20 from the 3-point line, and were just 18-56 overall, a 31 percent shooting performance that was easily their worst of the conference season.
But despite their shots not falling, they didn't fold in this one. After getting clobbered on the boards in Lexington, Vanderbilt pounded the glass this time around against the Wildcats, outrebounding them 40-36, and held them to just 36 percent shooting from the field.
Demarcus Cousins had five turnovers and mustered just five rebounds as he combated foul trouble. The immensely talented Wall went a measly 3-11 from the field and had only one assist. The Wildcats are deserving of their lofty ranking, and the Commodores had them on the ropes in the second half before losing their composure slightly and giving up a four-point advantage.
And the student body and the rest of Vanderbilt's loyal fans couldn't be more excited about this team. Consider the line to get into this classic that started forming 19 hours before tipoff if you need proof of that.
The Commodores were just one play short of sending them home happy for the 14th time this season.
Their play wasn't exemplary, but their effort was. And that kind of toughness pays dividends when it really counts, in March.