Vanderbilt already had mounted the improbable comeback against the nation’s top-ranked team.
The next time the Commodores jumped in front and needed to hold on in the waning minutes in order to win their first Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in 61 years. So, of course, on a team ripe with senior leadership a freshman delivered the biggest blow.
Kedren Johnson jumped at the chance. After an errant 3-pointer by Kentucky, Johnson brought the ball up the court. With the Wildcats slow to get back on defense, he saw an opening.
“I’ve probably done that move a million times in my career, just going left,” Johnson said. “I just saw Anthony Davis under the paint and wanted to win.”
The 6-foot-10 Davis, the eventual No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, couldn’t get over in time to deliver one of his record-setting blocks. Dribbling with his left hand, Johnson breezed by Marquis Teague, went underneath the basket, switched hands and banked in a reverse, go-ahead layup with 1:32 left. He made the ensuing free throw and the Commodores never looked back in a 71-64 victory in New Orleans. Kentucky, of course, didn’t lose again on its way to an eighth national championship.
“Now it is more special than what I thought it was when I actually did it,” Johnson said.
That last meeting between the schools was just 10 months ago but both sides believe it carries little meaning into Thursday’s SEC opener at Memorial Gymnasium (8 p.m., ESPN). Johnson is just one of five players — on both teams — who were in that game last year. All 10 starters are gone and the teams had a combined nine players drafted.
“The guys I’m coaching may not even know that game happened,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has reloaded with another highly touted freshman class, including three who start.
Calipari described all three games with Vanderbilt last year as wars that could have tilted the other way every time. Kentucky swept the regular-season series with wins by six and nine points before the Commodores’ shocker in the Big Easy.
“That was a great win. That was a great milestone for our program,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “… [But] I would say that it is probably wise for everyone to move on because there is nothing any of us can do about what happened. I’m still mad about the two games they beat us. I thought we had a chance to win all three games and we only won one.”
Neither Kentucky (9-4) nor Vanderbilt (6-6) enter the matchup ranked for the first time since meeting on Feb. 17, 2009.
The freshman trio of Archie Goodwin (15.8 points per game), Clarksville native Alex Poythress (14.0) and Nerlens Noel (10.8) and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer (12.0) lead the Wildcats. Kentucky has suffered through growing pains exposed in losses to Baylor, Notre Dame, Lousiville and top-ranked Duke.
Still, many observers, including Stallings, think this Kentucky team — again picked to win the SEC — has yet to peak.
“It takes great performances like [last year’s] to beat teams with great talent,” Stallings said. “That is the kind of performance we’re going to need again on Thursday night because they have great talent. It is young talent. But last year’s team was young talent and they won the national championship.”
Vanderbilt emerges from a non-conference slate filled with ups and downs.
Positive surprises — such as a win at Xavier — are still the exception as the Commodores continue struggle to score. They rank last in the SEC in scoring offense with just 59.7 points a game and just 49.3 in losses.
A win over Kentucky — even if it is not last year’s model — would offer the momentum boost a young Commodore team desperately desires.
“If you can win a game like that then it can certainly catapult and generate a lot of confidence in our team going forward in the league schedule,” Stallings said. “We look at it as a great opportunity. We know they have a great team again. But we’re looking forward to the challenge.”