“It’s unexplainable. Thank you Jesus.” pic.twitter.com/CJkFBBtKhj
— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) March 11, 2023
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vandy Train kept rolling Friday night. There was nothing Big Blue and its hordes of rabid fans could do to stop it.
Playing in what felt like a road environment in its own backyard at Bridgestone Arena, Vanderbilt downright controlled the final 23 minutes of the contest en route to an exhilarating and magical 80-73 victory over Kentucky.
The Commodores (20-13) will face Texas A&M (24-8) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.
“Man, I don’t even know. It’s unexplainable. Thank you Jesus,” an exhilarated Ezra Manjonsaid in a television interview after the game. “That’s it. This is a great feeling. We worked real hard to get here. It’s been a fight, but we got fighters. We here.”
Manjon, who spent his first three collegiate seasons at UC-Davis, was a man on a mission Friday. Well, truthfully, he was one of many men on a mission.
Manjon was part of a relentless attack on both ends of the floor from any and all Commodores who stepped on the court. The 6-foot point guard scored 25 points to go along with three assists while shooting 8 of 11 from the floor and making seven free throws.
Tyrin Lawrence and Jordan Wright each finished with 18 and were part of a victory that saw Vandy go 18 of 20 from the line and make 10 3-pointers. Kentucky trailed the final 20:32 of the night, never getting any closer than three points in that stretch.
Clinching its first trip to the SEC Tournament semifinals since 2017, Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky twice in the same season for the first time since 2007.
“I just think we’re fighters,” Manjon said. “This was our goal the whole time. We didn’t doubt ourselves. We knew we could do this, and it wasn’t really a shock to us at the end of the game. We knew we were going to come out and get this win.
“People are starting to see it—the run wasn’t a fluke. We’re a really good team, and we have really good players.”
It wasn’t like the Wildcats didn’t show up. Vanderbilt allowed Antonio Reeves to score 22 points. It gave up 21 points and 11 rebounds to Jacob Toppin and 19 points and 15 boards to Oscar Tshiebwe.
The Dores got out-rebounded 43-26. They allowed 34 points in the paint, 20 second-chance points and 21 offensive rebounds.
But in the end, the discrepancies didn’t matter. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s team refused to be rattled by the approximately 15,000 raucous Kentucky fans yearning for—and expecting—their team to get the job done.
“We believe in us. You know what I’m saying?” Stackhouse said. “We’re going to be us, and we believe in us. That’s all that matters. All the other noise doesn’t matter. We’re not worried about (the NCAA Tournament) or anything else but the next game. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
The first 20 minutes were a treat for anyone inside Bridgestone Arena—no matter their allegiance.
Kentucky came out fiery and focused as it took a 14-4 run on the heels of a 12-0 run. Vanderbilt used an 8-0 run of its own to get to 14-12, and soon a Lawrence slashing layup brought them to 21-20.
The Wildcats stretched the lead back out to 28-22—and then 34-27—before Vanderbilt took complete control over the final 2 1/2 minutes of the half.
Paul Lewis’ shot-clock-beating 3 cut it to 34-30. That was followed by a Wright jumper, a Manjon layup, a pair of Colin Smith free throws and a Wright 3 just before the halftime buzzer.
That all equated to a 39-34 advantage for the Commodores against the Wildcats, the crowd and all the odds.
“I don’t think those guys get rattled,” Stackhouse said. “We understand (Kentucky was) making shots. Plays are part of the game. You’re not really going to lose the game in the first half in this modern era with the three-point shot.
“You have an opportunity to get back in the game.”
Vandy made its first three shots of the second half to go up 45-36 and never looked back. When Kentucky inched to 63-60 with 7:02 left, Manjon replied by draining an improbable triple to demoralize UK once again.
After the final buzzer sounded, after Kentucky’s players and coaching staff departed the court, and after the sea of blue had made its way to the exits, the Vanderbilt faithful let their voices be heard in an appreciative, jubilant chorus of chants that may have been heard outside on Broadway.
Those chants and cheers may be even louder come Saturday afternoon.
“I couldn’t even think over there. They were just so loud,” Wright said. “It felt amazing. It’s something that we haven’t had before. The fan support that we’ve gotten in the past month, pretty much all season honestly, it’s been great. It feels amazing to come out there and be surrounded and have those fans just screaming, howling, yelling your name, yelling Coach Stackhouse’s name.
“The support feels great. Honestly, like I said, I couldn’t even think over there. It was just incredible.”
- Wright now has 1,138 career points and is 41st on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list. Babe Taylor (1,144) is 40th
- The Dores are now 5-3 in the SEC Tournament under Stackhouse and 44-59 all-time at the event.
- Vandy is now 50-154 all-time against Kentucky and 6-5 against the Wildcats at the SEC Tournament.
- The Commodores are now 16-3 this season when leading at halftime, 14-2 when scoring at least 75 points and 17-6 when shooting at least 40 percent from the field.
- Vandy secured a 20 win for the second season in a row. The last Vanderbilt squad to win at least 20 games was the 2014-15 team that finished 21-14.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.