No. 20 Kentucky edges No. 21 Vanderbilt 68-66
An exhausted Harrellson flustered Vanderbilt’s Festus Ezeli into mishandling a lob pass in the final second, allowing the 20th-ranked Wildcats to beat the 21st-ranked Commodores 68-66 on Tuesday night and finally win a close game.
Harrellson, the only player honored on Senior Night, walked off the court one last time thumping his hands to his chest as Kentucky (21-8, 9-6) at last solved its late-game woes.
“There was no way I was going to let us lose,” Harrellson said.
Kentucky came in 0-6 in games decided by five points or less, a mark that had coach John Calipari questioning his team’s mental toughness.
The Wildcats showed plenty of grit in the final 1:36 with freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones combining to make 7 of 8 free throws as Kentucky won its 34th straight home game, the third-longest streak in school history.
“The will to win was there,” Calipari said.
Knight finished with 17 points and Jones added 15 points and nine rebounds for Kentucky, which avenged a loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 12 by slowing down star John Jenkins.
Jenkins torched the Wildcats for 32 points in the first meeting but was held to 16 this time.
“Guys just got in his grill a little bit better,” Calipari said.
Ezeli led the Commodores (21-8, 9-6) with 22 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks but also turned it over three times.
“We had some key turnovers that can’t happen at the end of the game,” Ezeli said. “We need to be better.”
Still, Vanderbilt was able to do something most of the previous 33 visitors failed to do when walking into Rupp, it made the Wildcats work for it.
Kentucky led by as many as 15 points before Lance Goulbourne gave the Commodores their first lead of the game on a driving layup with 4:25 remaining.
Things were just starting to get interesting. The teams traded the lead four times before Jones put Kentucky up for good with a free throw with 52 seconds left and Harrellson followed by blocking Vanderbilt’s Jeffery Taylor then swiped a loose ball out of Ezeli’s hands.
Jones hit two free throws to put Kentucky up 66-63 with 18 seconds to go. Goulbourne made a layup to get Vanderbilt back within one with 8.6 seconds left before Knight calmly drained two more free throws to push the lead back to three.
Kentucky intentionally fouled Vanderbilt’s Brad Tinsley near midcourt to protect the lead. He hit the first free throw and intentionally missed the second but couldn’t quite chase down the rebound in the corner.
“I hated to ask (Tinsley) to miss but I thought it was the play,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “We had no timeouts left so we weren’t in a position to do something strategically if we did get the ball.”
The Wildcats inbounded to Jones, who stood on the sideline for a second waiting to be fouled. He stepped out of bounds instead and the Commodores had one last shot.
The pass came to Ezeli, who had bulled his way through the lane all night. He couldn’t quite control the pass however, and the ball ended up in Harrellson’s hands as time expired.
It was a storybook ending for a blue collar player who has evolved into an unlikely leader as a senior. Harrellson finished with eight points and nine rebounds in his final home game.
Calipari couldn’t help but laugh a little when asked if Harrellson would have been able to give that kind of effort after 36 grueling minutes a year ago.
“He wouldn’t have been in the game a year ago,” Calipari said.
This season, the depleted Wildcats haven’t had much of a choice.
With the crowd in full throat every time Harrellson touched the ball, it was the play of his younger teammates that helped stake the Wildcats to a 40-29 halftime lead.
Jones, who has slumbered through slow starts recently, appeared energized. He wasn’t the only one. Taking a cue from Harrellson, the Wildcats attacked the offensive glass relentlessly. Even freshman guard Doron Lamb and center Eloy Vargas got involved.
“We just knew we had to be active,” Jones said. “We wanted to do this for Josh.”
Lamb came into the game with seven offensive rebounds on the season but had two in the first half. The little-used Vargas elicited a fist pump from Calipari when he collected a miss by Miller and laid it in to put Kentucky up 13-8.
Though Ezeli and Tinsley did their best to keep Vanderbilt in it, the Commodores looked rattled in the charged atmosphere. Vanderbilt turned it over eight times in the half and Jenkins simply couldn’t get going.
He was fouled by Lamb on his first 3-point attempt but the Wildcats grew wise after that, failing to bite on Jenkins’ pump fakes. He badly missed his other two attempts of the half and Kentucky appeared on its way to a second straight perfect season at Rupp.
The Commodores rallied, but it wasn’t enough to keep Harrellson from walking off the court pounding his chest after the final horn as the crowd—some of them wearing the jeans shorts that is Harrellson’s off-the-court trademark— roared.
“Josh fought like heck,” Calipari said. “What a great thing.”