Forget that Vanderbilt was the only team left with a realistic chance to challenge Kentucky for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Forget that Kentucky had been on such a tear — winning its last four games by 103 points — that a letdown surely had to be coming.
None of that mattered to coach John Calipari’s team at Vanderbilt on Saturday night when the Wildcats did something they have not had to do yet this year — come from behind late on the road against a good, experienced team to win.
“Every game we play is like walking into this. We get the other team’s best shot and after the game, there are 25 (TV) camera. Any of the places we have been end up being like this,” said Calipari after UK’s 69-63 comeback victory. “We handled this game like we have other games and will handle future games the same way. On our board, I tell the team to love the road, love this, relish this. Keep in mind, when you are 40 you will think about playing this game.”
They did “relish” the experience.
Perhaps that’s why Calipari was almost giddy after the game. Sure, he wished Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had played a little better or Darius Miller had stayed out of foul trouble or Terrence Jones had kept scoring the second half like he did the first half. But Calipari was like a proud papa knowing that his babies had grown into young men after the Cats beat an older, more experienced team that was on fire for the first eight minutes of the second half in front of a crowd ready to celebrate a win.
“A lot of people had this as an ‘L’ for us,” Calipari said. “Half of the talking(media) heads said this was the one we were going to get dinged. I don’t know if that was their hope or their opinion.”
He was joking — I think.
The Commodores weren’t laughing, though. Not after this bitter loss when they used a 25-12 blitz to wipe out UK’s 13-point halftime lead only to succumb to UK’s numbing defense the final 10 minutes.
“Congratulations to (Kentucky). They made a few more plays than we did. It was a pretty good college basketball game if you didn’t care who won. We fought hard. We rebounded hard. They just made a couple more plays than we did. We’re very disappointed,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They’re a really good team. They’re hard to play against. They had to play tonight to win.”
Kentucky did — and it may have taken the heart out of Vanderbilt like apparently the Cats did last week when they beat Florida and then the Gators turned around and lost at home to Tennessee on Saturday.
“I feel bad for the fans. The fans always come out and support us. There were people that were out at 5 in the morning and I feel bad for them. I feel like we let our fans down tonight,” Vanderbilt senior Jeffery Taylor said. “Obviously, it was a great opportunity for us to come out and get a signature win, it is the last time I get to play Kentucky at home. And losing the game, I think we’re all competitors here and I feel like we felt like we had this game.”
“I think we played well for the first nine minutes of the game. Then there was an eight- or nine-minute stretch in the middle of the first half where we couldn’t score and we couldn’t get a stop either. It’s tough to come back from that kind of deficit, especially playing the number 1 team in the country.”
Kentucky didn’t let the Commodores score the final 4 minutes, 10 seconds, something that seemed unimaginable after Vandy opened the second half 10-for-14 from the field.
“I thought for most part we got pretty good shots in the last four minutes. They made some great defensive plays, some blocks here and there, being in the right place. For the most part we executed what Coach told us to do and they just made some plays,” Vanderbilt senior guard Brad Tinsley said.
Vanderbilt didn’t fold as much as Kentucky just held together and won, something that separates national title contenders from pretenders in March.
“We need all of this. In every huddle, I kept saying this is great for us. It is what we need,” Calipari said after Saturday’s win. “To be honest, I would rather we be up 23 points. They are an execution team, a veteran team, seniors. They played like that. We got better today.
“This was a good game. They put us in pick-and-rolls. They are an execution team. They are veterans. Our young guys hung around and made plays. We got stronger and tougher. We did a lot of good stuff down the stretch.”
They did, but what Kentucky did best was maintain its poise when it could have cracked.¿Last season’s Final Four team did enough to go 2-6 in SEC road play. The Elite Eight team two years lost SEC road games.
“We knew they were going to make a run. Their gym, they play great here. I never thought they were out of it. We just tried to keep the lead,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague said. “We just learned how much heart we all have. We came together defensively. We didn’t give up open shots. We just had to fight. We had been beating teams 10 or 20 points, but we knew we could win this.”
Believing and doing. Quite a combination when you add this team’s talent and why the Cats once again added to their win streak Saturday.