Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli saved their best for last. Good thing too.
Taylor and Ezeli, both seniors, performed below their respective statistical averages in the previous two games but combined for 35 points and 18 rebounds as Vanderbilt won its first SEC tournament championship since 1951 when it defeated No. 1 Kentucky 71-64 Sunday at New Orleans.
“Our team is like that proverbial box of chocolates,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “You just don't know. I would like to say that I know and I would like to say that they're the pillars of consistency, but they're not.”
The Commodores (24-10) did not allow a field goal over the final 8:01 and finished the contest on a 17-5 run. In so doing they ended the Wildcats’ 24-game winning streak.
A layup and free throw by freshman Kedren Johnson with 1:35 to play capped a 10-0 run, broke a 62-62 tie and put Vanderbilt ahead to stay. Ezeli and John Jenkins combined to make six consecutive free throws after that.
The emotion of the victory was obvious as players celebrated and Stallings sat on the bench with a face buried in a towel.
“I couldn't be happier for my players because this season has had its ups and its downs and we have been the target of much criticism, and to my players' credit, they never let that get to them, they never let it create a seam in our squad or let it create any division in anything that we did,” Stallings said. “Kentucky, they set the bar. They set the bar nationally this year. They set the bar in our league almost every year. They certainly did this year. They have got a great team. So we're proud to have beaten them.
“Proud to have won a SEC championship.”
Kentucky (32-2) had won both regular season meetings between the teams and had a seven-point lead, 62-55, after SEC player of the year Anthony Davis made one of two free throws with 5:23 remaining.
Jenkins started the comeback when he made two free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.
“I thought Vanderbilt played very well down the stretch,” Kentucky coach John Calipiari said. “We had our chances, we had our shots, we didn't make them. You got to give them credit. That game was over and then all of a sudden it's like basket, basket, basket [and] it's anybody's ballgame. And they played down the stretch well. Hats off to them. Congratulations."
Jenkins finished with 17 points and seven rebounds and was named the tournament’s most valuable player. He averaged 18.3 points and made 11 3-pointers in the Commodores’ three victories.
Taylor had 18 points and 12 rebounds after having combined for just eight points and five rebounds in the first two games. Ezeli, who was scoreless in Saturday’s semifinal victory over Ole Miss, added 17 points and six rebounds.
“That was the same Festus Ezeli [Sunday] that went scoreless [Saturday]. And the same Jeffery Taylor that scored two points [Saturday],” Stallings said. “So good for them that on an occasion like this they could rise up and give us a great game.
“Good for them.”
Davis and Terrence Jones each had 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats. Davis added three blocked shots and Jones had three steals — both game-highs.
“It's [a] huge confidence builder for us and we're going to go practice and get ready for the NCAA tournament now,” Jenkins said.