Feb. 12, 2012
The final score is not how Commodore fans drew it up. A loss is a loss and it always stings, even when it is to the No. 1 team in the country. Vanderbilt lost the game to Kentucky on the scoreboard. But over the course of the entire day, Vanderbilt, Nashville and college basketball exited as winners on Saturday.
From the energetic students that lined up at 5 a.m. and provided a festive backdrop for ESPN's national College GameDay broadcast Saturday morning to the heavyweight fight staged in front of another national audience in Memorial Gym that capped the day, college basketball fans everywhere were treated to outstanding theater.
"It was a pretty good college game if you didn't care who won," Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings said.
In the first half it looked like that would not be the case as Kentucky jumped out to a 13-point lead at the break.
But Vanderbilt awoke in the second half and it awoke in a big way. The Commodores emerged a different team after intermission, appearing more aggressive on the offensive end and quicker on defense.
The easy baskets Kentucky got in the paint dried up with a tighter 2-3 zone than the one employed during parts of the first half, and Vanderbilt appeared more in rhythm and as a result, shots began to fall.
The crowd that screamed like mad at GameDay in the morning and then again during the first few minutes of the game, was given the opportunity they desperately wanted in the first half, and they screamed like they hadn't screamed before.
With Festus Ezeli establishing himself in the lane with a jump hook over sensational freshman Anthony Davis, John Jenkins knocking down a jumper from the corner and Jeffery Taylor literally giving Michael Kidd-Gilchrist a free ride to the rim with a thunderous dunk in which he was fouled while providing the freshman with free frequent flier miles, Vanderbilt was back in the game.
Kentucky's 13-point lead was no more. On the strength of a 15-3 run, Vanderbilt went in front 55-51 with 8:42 to play. Momentum was in Vanderbilt's corner and Memorial Magic was rearing its head.
"It was two teams slugging it out ... it really was," Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari said. "They weren't going to go away, we weren't going to go away."
What once had every indication of turning into a snoozer, was now an all out slugfest just as many had thought the entire game would be.
It was as physical of a half of basketball as you will see. The officials let both teams play. It was the kind of game you played on the playground growing up where a player must call their own foul, but you knew that meant very little because nobody was going to call a foul.
What fans witnessed was an instant classic. It was March Madness a month early and it was Memorial Magic ... doing, well, what it does.
Everything was beginning to align.
Vanderbilt had come back and had withstood a 10-2 Kentucky run to pull back in front, 63-61, with 4:06 to play. But see, that is where it ended. The magic seemed to be swept out of the gym by the crisp air that swirled throughout the Nashville night. Shots that were dropping began to clang off the rim and Davis began to swat others out of mid-air. Soon the Commodores were as cold as the Nashville night. Kentucky would score the final eight points of the game and claim a hard-fought victory.
For the players, the loss was deflating on many fronts, most notably because of the fan support.
"I feel bad for the fans," senior forward Jeffery Taylor said. "The fans always come out and support us. There were people here at 5 a.m., so I feel bad for them. I feel like we let our fans down tonight. We felt like we had this game. We were up four points with eight minutes left. We battled back, so it was disappointing on a lot of different fronts."
A loss will always be disappointing, but the way Vanderbilt competed Saturday night was what many expected to see at the start of the season. Vanderbilt began the year as the preseason No. 7 team in the country, and were picked by pundits to challenge Kentucky for the top spot in the SEC.
Saturday, Vanderbilt played very much like the team many expected in the preseason and pushed the top-ranked Wildcats to the brink. After a couple of surprising losses early in the season to the likes to Cleveland State and Indiana State, the bloom appeared to be off the rose for the Commodores. A strong start to conference play began to change that before back-to-back road losses last week. Just which Commodore team would show up on the national stage was the question?
The answer Saturday was shouted as loudly as the deafening crowd that packed the gym. It was the preseason top 10 team.
The end result was a loss, but it will not take away the energy, the atmosphere and the overall package Vanderbilt produced. College basketball won Saturday in Nashville.
"Hats off to them, their fans," Calipari said. "What a great environment this was. It is why we do what we do as coaches and players. This is what it is about."
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