By David Brandt/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — John Jenkins lay on the court with his hands over his face as Vanderbilt teammates celebrated all around, exuberant after beating No. 1 Kentucky 71-64 for the program’s first Southeastern Conference tournament title in more than 60 years.
The Wildcats might not really care about the SEC tournament. The Commodores did.
Jeffery Taylor scored 18 points, Jenkins added 17 and Vanderbilt rallied with a 16-2 run over the final 5 minutes to end the Wildcats’ 24-game winning streak that lasted more than three months.
“Their 24 game winning streak. Their name on the front of their jersey doesn’t matter to us,” Vanderbilt’s Lance Goulbourne said. “Whoever was in our way, we were going to play as hard as we could to try to win that championship.”
Festus Ezeli also had 17 points for Vanderbilt (24-10), which was playing in its first SEC tournament final since 1951, the year of its only other championship. The Commodores pushed ahead in the final minutes with a few timely shots, but mostly with suffocating defense.
Kentucky (32-2) didn’t score a field goal over the final 8:04 and shot just 35.9 percent from the field (23 of 64).
“We played really solid defense all game,” Taylor said. “The coaches came up with a great game plan and we followed that for the most part. Also, you have to be a little lucky. They missed some open looks.”
The Wildcats might still win a championship this season, but it wasn’t in the SEC tournament. Even with the loss, Kentucky will almost certainly earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament when the brackets are announced later Sunday.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the loss didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for this team, but it did serve as a wake-up call.
“Maybe now everybody realizes we’re not invincible,” Calipari said. “We’re like everybody else out there. We’re going to have to execute, play hard and with some aggressiveness and intensity or we will get beat.”
Darius Miller scored 16 points in a surprise start for Kentucky while Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis both added 12. Davis had 10 rebounds and three blocked shots, but he got into some rare early foul trouble that limited his effectiveness.
Calipari has repeatedly told anyone who will listen that he doesn’t care about conference tournaments, viewing them as a nuisance before the NCAA tournament because of the three-games-in-three-days grind.
“I wish this would have happened yesterday so we got home a day earlier,” Calipari said.
And while Kentucky had bouts of good play, it was Vanderbilt that put together a much more consistent performance, one that left Commodores coach Kevin Stallings sitting alone on the bench, his face buried in a towel.
Vanderbilt had already played Kentucky close twice this season, and the Commodores were up to the challenge once again. Taylor scored 13 first-half points and Jenkins hit three 3-pointers as the Commodores pushed out to a 26-18 but had to settle for a 37-37 tie at halftime.
As is their custom, Kentucky’s fans completely took over the SEC tournament and turned New Orleans Arena into a home venue, roaring when Miller was announced as a surprise starter. But even with that emotional lift, Vanderbilt had more energy in the first half and the Wildcats were constantly battling from behind.
Miller’s eight first-half points and a couple of timely 3-pointers by Kyle Wiltjer helped Kentucky keep things from getting out of hand.
There wasn’t much separation in the second half until about halfway through, when Jones had two powerful dunks to put Kentucky up 54-49 and get the crowd into it.
It looked like Kentucky might pull away, but then the entire team’s shooting touch suddenly went frigid. After a dunk by Miller with 8:04 left, the Wildcats missed 14 consecutive shots from the field to lose for the first time since Dec. 10.
“We missed every single shot down the stretch,” Calipari said. “And when I say every shot, I mean every shot.”
Vanderbilt worked its way back from a seven-point deficit with 5:25 remaining, tying the game at 62-all on Ezeli’s tip-in with 1:56 left and taking the lead for good when freshman Kedren Johnson converted a three-point play.
The loss spoiled the Wildcats’ perfect season against SEC competition. Kentucky is 18-1 against SEC opponents.
Vanderbilt has won four of five games heading into the NCAA tournament and is certainly confident after beating the No. 1 team in the country.
“It’s unbelievable. I’m so happy right now,” said Vanderbilt’s Steve Tchiengang, who was wearing a basketball net and Mardi Gras beads around his neck in the aftermath. “I feel so blessed to be around these guys and this coaching staff. It’s just an awesome feeling. I really can’t explain it. It’s unbelievable.”