Inexperience hindered Vanderbilt throughout the season.
Now the Commodores are banking on one of their few experiences to keep them going. Playing like it has been here before, which it has, Vanderbilt is halfway to its second straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
The unlikely run continued with a convincing 64-48 victory over No. 2 seed Kentucky on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.
The No. 10 seed, stunned the overwhelming Big Blue faithful who invaded Bridgestone Arena and gave coach Kevin Stallings his 400th career victory. The Commodores advanced to their fourth straight semifinal on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ABC) and will fce Ole Miss. The Rebels rallied from a 13-point deficit to beat Vanderbilt in overtime in the teams’ lone meeting in January.
No starters remain from last year’s championship team but six current players experienced the thrill of hoisting the title in New Orleans after knocking off then-No. 1 Kentucky. That’s more that can be said for these Wildcats, who started four freshmen on Friday.
“They’re a bunch of freshmen and they didn’t know what a tournament feels like,” sophomore forward Shelby Moats said. “We know that it is a quick turnaround and we just came out prepared and kind of had the same game plan that we did last year on them. We’re showing people that we’re growing up a little bit.”
In a span of 40 minutes, Vanderbilt (16-16) showed a microcosm of the improvement made over the last 11 games. The Commodores shot the ball well – 50 percent for the game and a season-high 59.1 percent in the first half. They defended with a purpose – Kentucky was held to a season-low in points and Moats and Josh Henderson tamed big guys Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress. They jumped out to a big lead and withstood a run.
As a result, they picked up their eighth win in 11 games and pulled to .500 for the first time since reaching 6-6 with a win over William & Mary on Jan. 2. That was eight days before Vanderbilt opened SEC play with the first of two close losses to Kentucky (21-11).
“It has been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a team as I am of this team here,” Stallings said. “I’m very, very proud of this team and I’m very, very proud of this season and we’re 16-16. It is the first time we’ve been .500 in about five months.
“But, you know what, I wish it was better than that but…,” Stallings paused as he choked back tears, “I’m very proud of them.”
In the first two games, Kentucky charged to large halftime leads and Vanderbilt never led by more than three points.
This time, the Commodores had an answer for every early Kentucky basket and finally pulled away. Cauley-Stein hurt Vanderbilt a month ago with 20 points. As soon as the 7-footer sat down with his second foul with less than five minutes left, the Commodores attacked the paint. With a 16-7 run, a five-point advantage turned into a 14-point halftime lead.
Vanderbilt remained hot after the break, making its first five shots. Kentucky coach John Calipari called two timeouts in a span of 40 seconds but it couldn’t slow an 11-1 run by the Commodores. Dai-Jon Parker couldn’t miss – kissing a leaner off the glass, sinking a 15-foot jumper and driving in for a layup off the backboard. The last gave Vanderbilt its largest lead, 48-27, with 16:41 left.
“First couple games with them, I think they came out, hit us in the mouth pretty good,” junior forward Rod Odom said. “We tried to make a point of going out there and competing from the beginning of the game. I think that did a lot for us [Friday].”
The Wildcats finally punched back, rattling off 10 straight points. With the lead down to 48-37 with 12:44 to go, Stallings called a timeout.
Immediately out of the break, point guard Kedren Johnson drove the paint and drew a goaltending. Johnson, just a sophomore, backpedaled down the court and reminded his teammates to relax. On the next possession, a big offensive rebound by Odom set up a 3-pointer by freshman Kevin Bright. Just like that, the rally was over.
“Kedren really likes to win,” Stallings said. “He has as an unselfish a spirit when it comes to playing and winning as just about anybody I’ve ever seen. … I think our team really feeds off of him and he’s an innately confident kid. He is a very confident basketball player and our team has needed his confidence all season long.
Parker led four players in double figures with 12 points. Bright added 11 points and Johnson and Kyle Fuller each scored 10. Archie Goodwin scored 12 points to lead Kentucky, which was left to ponder its NCAA Tournament fate.
Conversely, the Commodores continue to learn from experiences – new and old – as their season improbably continues.
“I feel like we’re all just growing up,” Fuller said. “We really want to play in that tournament and not go home. It is all about playing for the next game.”
• No. 3 Ole Miss 64, No. 6 Missouri 62: Derrick Millinghaus scored the last five points and floated in the game-winning jumper with 1.2 seconds left to cap off a ferocious comeback.
The Rebels (24-8) trailed by 10 with 8:49 left. But Millinghaus scored nine of his 11 points in the last six minutes.
Phil Pressey hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Missouri (23-10) a 62-59 lead with 48 seconds left. But Millinghaus responded with a 3-pointer that rattled in from the left wing.
It appeared the Tigers would be able to hold for the last shot. But Laurence Bowers threw the inbounds over the head over Keion Bell. Marshall Henderson snagged the turnover with 24 seconds left to set up the final play. Millinghaus drove the lane and released a 10-foot floater that dropped through the net.
Henderson scored 27 points and made four 3-pointers.
Alex Oriakhi led Missouri with 16 points.