Nashville, Tenn. --- No. 6 seed Vanderbilt (19-13, 11-7 SEC) defeated No. 3 seed Kentucky, 80-73, in the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament on Friday at Bridgestone Arena.
Ezra Manjon led the charge with 25 points while Jordan Wright (18 points, six boards) and Tyrin Lawrence (18 points) were crucial in the win. Vanderbilt has now won 10 of its last 11 games after starting off the season with a 10-12 record. Some of the big wins included Pitt, Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky twice over the span of nine days.
Vanderbilt's win marks the first time beating Kentucky in consecutive meetings since 2007.
Oscar Tshiebwe (19 points, 15 rebounds), Jacob Toppin (21 points, 11 boards) and Austin Reeves (22 points) weren't enough to will the Wildcats past a gritty Commodores team.
The Wildcats were coming off a 68-66 loss to the Commodores in the second to last game of the season and had something to prove. Per usual, there was a sea of blue for Kentucky fans and Vanderbilt had the advantage of playing in its home city.
That motivation was apparent on the defense side of the ball for both teams as buckets were hard to come by in the first five minutes. Kentucky started heating up with Antonio Reeves' 3-pointer at 14:08 and the crowd erupted when he hit another one in the ensuing play - giving the Wildcats an early 14-4 lead.
Vanderbilt called a timeout to slow down the momentum and Wright drilled a deep ball to get the Commodore crowd involved. Manjon followed up the shot with a layup and then hit a 3-pointer to bring the game back with a 14-12 score at 11:11.
Kentucky's physicality started to show halfway through the first after Toppin and Tshiebwe both grabbed their own rebounds on back-to-back plays to score second-chance layups. Toppin had an early six rebounds with nine minutes remaining and four of them were offensive.
Vanderbilt wasn't slowing down after quick buckets from Kentucky as both Lawrence and Trey Thomas hit a 3-ball. But, Toppin's ability to crash the offensive boards and tip in his own miss kept the Kentucky crowd ablaze, putting the Wildcats up 26:20 with 6:34 remaining in the first period.
The Commodores kept fighting back to make for an exhilarating first half.
Wright and Manjon came through with clutch buckets as the half winded down to tie the game up at 34-34 with 1:49 remaining. Tshiebwe picked up a technical foul in the final minute and it gave Colin Smith two free throws - followed by a wide open 3-pointer for Wright to close out the half with a 39-34 Vanderbilt lead.
Kentucky was in control most of the first half before the Commodores hit a 12-0 run to close out. The Wildcats led the rebound battle with 22 to the Dores' ten, but the seven 3-pointers on 15 attempts was hard to overcome.
Vanderbilt didn't miss a beat in the second half as it went on a quick 6-2 run that forced John Calipari to call a timeout at 18:29. The Wildcats slowly tried to battle back, but Vanderbilt's momentum was too strong in the first five minutes of the second period. Manjon and Wright kept attacking and put their team up 52-42 at the 15:05 mark.
Kentucky's crowd stood up after a timeout break and cheered on as Reeves and Tshiebwe hit layups to bring the game within six points. But back-to-back buckets by Lawrence hushed Wildcat fans and put Vanderbilt back up 59-50 with 11:58 to go.
The trio of Wright, Lawrence and Manjon all had at least 15 points by the 7:20 mark and kept the Commodores at a semi-comfortable 63-56 lead. Consecutive pairs of made free throws from Toppin and Reeves brought the game within three points. But, Manjon continued to apply pressure by hitting a crucial 3-pointer and keeping separation.
Vanderbilt held all momentum until Reeves hit from deep at 2:13 to re-engage the crowd and bring the Wildcats back within striking distance, 71-67.
With only seconds remaining in the shot clock, Lawrence hit an enormous jumper to extend the Commodores' lead by six points. In the ensuing play, Reeves committed an offensive foul and gave Vanderbilt the ball back with 1:00 remaining. But, Vanderbilt gave the ball right back to Kentucky after Smith committed an offensive foul himself.
Lawrence's jumper put the Commodores too far ahead for a Kentucky comeback and the rest was history.
Vanderbilt will face No. 2 seed Texas A&M in the semifinals of the tournament on Saturday at 3pm ET -- the game will be aired on ESPN.
Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC) is eliminated from the tournament.