Vanderbilt’s basketball team was playing well when March arrived, but there was no portent of what was about to happen next. Powerful Kentucky, winners of the NCAA championship two of the previous three years, was the overwhelming favorite to win the 1951 SEC tournament championship — especially with the added advantage of the event being held in nearby Louisville.
Vanderbilt, at 15-8, had momentum thanks to a second-place regular season finish in the SEC. It had a starting five of Bob Dudley Smith, George Kelley, Jack Heldman, Dave Kardokus and leading scorer Al Weiss (14 points per game), along with top reserve Gene Southwood. Coach Bob Polk was in charge.
Three games in — after victories over Tennessee, Georgia and LSU — the Commodores prepared for the championship as heavy underdogs. Then something incredible happened. Before a heavily partisan Kentucky crowd, the Commodores upended No. 1 Kentucky 61-57. It remains one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s long history, and a singular moment in the history of Vanderbilt basketball.
“When you start putting things in perspective, it may rank as the greatest Vanderbilt victory ever,” Kardokus said. “This was not just a Kentucky team we beat. It was one of Kentucky’s greatest teams ever.” Despite the defeat, the Wildcats went on to finish 32-2 and win the NCAA championship.
As the current team begins the 2011 SEC Tournament this week in Atlanta — 60 years to the day after that precious Commodore victory — the 1951 trophy remains the school’s lone SEC tournament championship. In fact, Vanderbilt hasn’t returned to the championship game since (though the event was discontinued in 1953 and only revived in 1979).
Perhaps it’s worth a look back at the ’51 team for some perspective.
The victory came over an Adolph Rupp-coached Kentucky team that many thought was the equal of the Wildcats’ “Fabulous Five” NCAA championship teams of 1948 and ’49. Kentucky won the two regular season meetings with Vanderbilt by wide margins and had a massive 26-game SEC winning streak coming in. About 7,000 fans, mostly UK’s, jammed into sold-out Jefferson County Armory, but the tournament was televised for the first time, which also enabled Nashville-area fans to see it.
For those who played the game six decades ago, it’s likely the biggest and most significant sports moment in each of their lives.
“It remains one of the great highlights of my life,” Southwood, 81, said. “No one expected us to win. But we went out and played well and shot the ball so well.”
The game began as most predicted, with Kentucky racing to an early 10-point lead. The Commodores trimmed the deficit to four by halftime, but Kentucky led 48-39 with 11 minutes left. That’s when Vanderbilt got hot. Two hoops by Kardokus and baskets by Heldman and Smith started the rally.
“We were down 10 points, and Gene Southwood hit five straight long shots,” said Smith, 80, who was a junior guard.
Southwood’s fifth hoop, a jumper from the side, gave Vanderbilt the lead for good at 57-55 with 4:05 left. Two pressure-packed free throws by Kelley with 3:11 left made it 59-55.
“Bob Dudley and I were out at mid-court talking during some free throws late, and he was jumping up and down and telling me, ‘All we have to do is play defense, and we’re going to win this game,’ ” Heldman, 80, said. “I’ll never forget his enthusiasm.”
After a Kentucky miss, Smith drove past Cliff Hagan at midcourt and roared in for the final points. Bob White intercepted a long Kentucky pass to seal it.
“One thing I remember is that they had already engraved the names of the [Kentucky] players on the championship trophy,” Kelley, 84, a senior captain, said. “The PA announcer said for everyone to go back for the victory party at the hotel after the game. They had already counted us out.”
Smith led a balanced Vanderbilt attack with 15 points. Southwood came off the bench to score 14, while Kardokus added 13 and Heldman 11.
The late Waxo Green of the Nashville Banner borrowed from Walt Stewart of the Memphis Commercial Appeal to describe the outcome: “The calf killed the butcher.”
“It was something, looking at all those sick Kentucky people who were there ready for the third killing,” Green said years later.
Just four years earlier, Kentucky beat the Commodores in the SEC tourney 98-29, the worst loss in Vanderbilt history. The seeds for revenge were planted in Smith’s head two years after that, during another lopsided defeat. Smith was a freshman then — a time when all freshmen were ineligible.
“I sat right on the first row on the student side near the bench,” Smith said. “I’ll never forget it. There was this guy with a big bass drum who kept beating it right behind the bench, and their students were right behind us, screaming taunts throughout the game.
“They killed us [70-37]. It was an awful experience. I told myself that night that I hoped that some day I got the chance to avenge that experience, and I did.”
Vanderbilt had the chance to follow its SEC championship with an appearance in the N.I.T., which at the time carried more prestige than the NCAA tournament. The players took a vote and opted to decline the invitation.
“The overriding factor was that we had just beaten the No. 1 team in the country,” Smith said. “What could top that?”
Nothing could. In fact, nothing has since.