Festus Ezeli had a career night but it wasn’t enough as No. 21 Vanderbilt fell 68-66  to No. 20 Kentucky on the road Tuesday night.
The 6-foot-11 Ezeli played a career-high 36 minutes, scored 22 points and grabbed a career-tying 13 rebounds. He blocked three shots to break Will Perdue’s school record of 74 in a single season, which had stood for 23 years.
But twice in the last 20 seconds he had the ball knocked away as Vanderbilt (21-8, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) failed to pull off a huge road win at a soldout Rupp Arena after rallying from a 15-point deficit.
“I think we just came out in the second half and decided to just leave it on the floor and that’s what we did,” Ezeli said in a postgame radio interview. “I guess that is what happens when we fight.”
Vanderbilt took its first advantage of the game when Lance Goulbourne’s bucket made it 60-59 with 4:25 left. The lead changed twice over the next couple minutes until Terrence Jones put Kentucky ahead 64-63 with a free throw with 52 seconds remaining.
On the next possession, after chewing up a bit of the shot clock, Ezeli got the ball on an inbounds pass with less than 20 seconds left. He pivoted and tried to back up Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson but Darius Miller was there on the help side defense to knock the ball away.
Jones hit two free throws for Kentucky, and then Goulbourne drove in to slash the lead to 66-65 with 8.2 seconds left. After two free throws by Doron Lamb, Kentucky (21-8, 9-6) fouled Brad Tinsley with 6.7 seconds to go. Tinsley made the first free throw but missed the second on purpose. Kentucky got the ball back but Jones was called for a turnover with 1.1 seconds left. Tinsley’s inbounds pass to Ezeli was near the rim but Jones came into poke the ball loose as Kentucky held on for the win.
The Wildcats have now won 34 straight at Rupp Arena, including 33 under second-year coach John Calipari.
“It is a shame we couldn’t pull that out,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “You can’t fault their effort. Their effort was fantastic. I do think this bodes well for us down the road if this is the way we are going to play.”
The Commodores dug a hole early, as they turned the ball over eight times in the first half and finished with 12 miscues. They fell behind 38-23 late in the first half before a flurry cut the lead to 44-40 just four minutes into the second half. But the Wildcats responded, going on an 11-2 run for a 55-42 advantage.
Vanderbilt again proved to be resilient as Jeffery Taylor clamped down on Brandon Knight, who finished with 17 points on 5-of-14 shooting, and the Commodores went ahead with an 18-4 run.
“I thought Jeff’s defense was terrific,” Stallings said. “Knight is a great player. He is one of my favorite players that is on another team in this league. It is hard to shut him down. But he took 14 shots to get 17 points, so we will take the return.”
Vanderbilt forced eight Kentucky turnovers after halftime — the Wildcats had just one before intermission — and John Jenkins warmed up. The SEC’s leading scorer had just three points at halftime but finished with 16. Taylor added 13 points and six rebounds. Goulbourne had nine boards to go along with six points and Tinsley chipped in nine points to go along with an impressive nine assists and zero turnovers.
“They were dogging [Jenkins} every step of the way,” Stallings said.
But Ezeli was the story of the night as he was 8-of-13 from the field and 6-of-9 from the free-throw line. The center has scored at least 10 points in seven of the last eight games.
“I’m getting healthy again. I’m just feeling good,” he said. “I realize I am a load down low and I’m just trying to use that to our advantage.”
Vanderbilt hosts No. 14 Florida (23-6, 12-3) at 5 p.m. Saturday in the final regular-season game for both teams.