Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wished for some Memorial Magic.
Unfortunately, Kentucky slurped up the last ounce on Thursday night.
After a controversial no call on an apparent shot-clock violation, Kedren Johnson still had a chance to sink the game-winning shot. But his 3-pointer at the buzzer clanked off the back rim and the Commodores lost 60-58 in the Southeastern Conference opener in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,316 at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I told my son as I was driving into the game that it would be nice for something magical to happen in Memorial,” Stallings said. “When that ball went to Kedren that’s what flashed through my mind.”
The Commodores (6-7, 0-1 SEC) erased a 16-point, second-half deficit with an 18-0 run. Sheldon Jeter’s two-handed dunk with 6:11 left gave Vanderbilt its first lead of the night, 48-46. But Kentucky (10-4, 1-0), the defending national champ, jumped back in front and led 58-55 with less than a minute.
After a missed 3-pointer, the Commodores needed a stop, and it appeared they got one. With 18.3 seconds left, Nerlens Noel shot a floater as the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of the shot clock, but officials didn’t wave off the made shot. Replays confirmed that the shot was late, with a red zero on the clock.
Stallings immediately called a timeout and emphatically pleaded to the referees to call a shot clock violation, but officials told Stallings plays involving the shot clock aren't reviewable.
“I was right there. I feel like the ball was still in his hands,” Johnson said.
“I'm not going to do anything to take away from what was a great college basketball game,” Stallings said. “We're not going to talk about a call that might have or might not have. It was close and those were three of the best (referees) in the country out there tonight and they officiated a great game. So I’m not going to belabor whether or not they missed one call because they got a lot of them right.”
The Commodores still had a chance to win the game. Johnson, who scored a game-high 18 points, hit a 3-pointer to pull within two. Then, on the ensuing inbounds play, Kyle Fuller slapped a pass off Kentucky’s Julius Mays to give Vanderbilt possession with 6.7 seconds left.
Rod Odom received the inbounds but was immediately covered. He slung a pass to Shelby Moats, who was knocked down by a Kentucky defender but managed to pass the ball off to a wide-open Johnson. In front of the Vanderbilt bench, he heaved up a shot as time expired.
“I knew it was a little bit too much to the right after I let it go,” Johnson said. “Sometimes those still have a chance. Unfortunately, that one didn’t go in for me.”
That Vanderbilt would have a shot to win the game seemed improbable at halftime.
Kentucky led 35-24 at the break after shooting 57.7 percent in the first half. The Commodores missed 19 of their opening 24 shots and shot just 27.8 percent before halftime.
The Wildcats grabbed a 47-31 lead with 13:47 left on an offensive rebound by Archie Goodwin. Then Vanderbilt switched to a 2-3 zone defense and Kentucky went cold. Attacking the glass, diving on the floor, the Commodores came alive. They held the Wildcats scoreless for nearly eight minutes.
“They just outworked us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They beat us to 50-50 balls. They beat us to long rebounds. We were lucky to win the game.”
“Odom finished with 12 points. Moats came off the bench, and was one point shy of a double-double by setting career-highs with nine points and 10 rebounds. Despite facing a much taller and bigger frontcourt, Vanderbilt outrebounded Kentucky 42-37 and hauled down 20 offensive rebounds.
“I feel like we kept our composure a couple times when maybe earlier in the season it would have been lost a little bit quicker," Johnson said. "So I'm proud of us. We just came up a little bit short.”