The hunt for another SEC Tournament title came to a quick end on Friday night as Vanderbilt beat Kentucky 80-73 in the quarterfinals at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Kentucky, 21-11, has now lost to Vanderbilt twice in the last nine days after falling 68-66 last week at home on Senior Night. Ironically, it was much of the same game plan for Vandy Coach Jerry Stackhouse, who was recently named the SEC Co-Coach of the Year, as the Commodores scored more than half of its points from the three-point line and spread out the Wildcats to attack the rim and score on easy lay-ups.
After a sloppy start for both teams, Kentucky‘s Antonio Reeves hit back-to-back three-pointers to give the Wildcats a 14-4 lead at the 13:32 mark. Vanderbilt then countered with its own 8-0 run on a pair of three-pointers sandwiched between a jumper in the lane to cut the lead to 14-12.
The Commodores would cut the lead to 28-27 before a Cason Wallace pull-up jumper, a Reeves driving layup, and a mid-range shot from Oscar Tshiebwe extended the advantage to 34-27.
Once again, Vandy fought back and scored seven straight points in a span of just 47 seconds to tie the game at 34-all with 1:42 left in the half.
Tshiebwe was then called for a flagrant foul, his second in as many games, as the Commodores hit two free throws and a three-pointer at the horn as Vandy led 39-34 at halftime on a 12-0 run to close the half.
Vanderbilt attacked to start the second half, scoring on its first possession, followed by a jumper and driving lay-up to pull ahead 45-36 before a quick Kentucky timeout just 1:30 seconds into play. A three-pointer gave Vandy its biggest lead at 52-40.
The Wildcats cut it to 52-46 on a Tshiebwe steal and finger roll and ultimately had a chance to get within three late but Toppin missed two free throws with 34.1 seconds left as Vandy held on to seal the victory.
On to the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt heats up from behind the arc
The Vanderbilt offense was looking for a knockout punch against the Wildcats and found it with a barrage of three-pointers to beat the Wildcats in two of three games this year. The Commodores were 7-of-15 from deep in the first half (46.7%) and spread the floor to attack the rim as most of Vandy’s points were either three point bombs or lay-ups, most of which came too easy.
Wallace returns from injury to add point guard depth
After missing the season finale at Arkansas with an injury, Wallace returned to run the point and provided a lift with his clutch pull-up jumpers and scrappy defense. Wallace, the team’s only true point guard in the absence of Sahvir Wheeler, played most of the game despite a tough couple of weeks on the sidelines.
The Dallas native, considered by experts as an NBA lottery pick, has been outstanding all season and was recently named to the All-SEC Freshman Team with Chris Livingston.
Jacob Toppin brings high energy as lone bright spot
Toppin just missed a double-double in the first half, going for 10 points and nine rebounds as the Rhode Island transfer was active on both ends of the floor. In one stretch mid-way through the first half, the 6-foot-9 forward hit a three, scored on an offensive stick back, and threw a lob for an easy Antonio Reeves basket to give the Wildcats a 28-22 lead. Toppin finished with his eighth double-double and scored in double figures for the 22nd time this season. He entered the game averaging 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
What’s Next for the Wildcats?
Instead of playing Texas A&M on Saturday in the semifinals, the Wildcats now have to sit and wait to see where they’ll end up on Selection Sunday. Kentucky has enough Quad 1 wins to make the tournament but will be at the mercy of the committee on seeding.
Regardless of where the Wildcats end up, they will need to get healthy and find a way to tighten up their three-point defense to have any chance at winning its first NCAA game in the last three years.