NASHVILLE — Two minutes from the end, two minutes from Vanderbilt shocking Kentucky 64-48 in their SEC tournament quarterfinal Friday night, the Commodores fans began chanting, "N-I-T! N-I-T!"
It was almost assuredly meant to taunt the Big Blue Nation, which had overtaken more than two-thirds of Bridgestone Arena's 18,160 seats for this contest.
But if UK's loss prevents it from defending its NCAA title after falling to 21-11 for the season, the Commodores might also be making a case for the NIT if they don't go on to repeat as SEC tourney champs.
They play the Missouri-Ole Miss winner in this afternoon's semifinal round. Win that one and Vanderbilt would be eligible for an NIT bid, since it could finish no worse than .500 for the year. Were the 'Dores to win the SEC tourney, they would receive the league's automatic NCAA bid.
"We're 16-16 and I don't think we've even been a .500 team in about five months," said winning coach Kevin Stallings, whose young squad really hasn't stood at .500 since Jan. 2 following a 64-50 win over William and Mary.
"We scored 33 points against Marist. We weren't very good. But we never quit. The most satisfying thing for a coach is to have your team play as close to its potential as possible. I think we did that tonight."
He would certainly get no argument from UK coach John Calipari.
"They played a great basketball game; they've won seven out of eight (actually six out of seven)," he said. "We laid an egg and they played well. I told our team all week that the hardest thing to do in tournament play is to have a bye, then play a game against a team that's playing well and already played one game on that court. And that's what happened."
What happened was the 'Dores jumped on UK early and often, leading 37-23 at the break after hitting 59 percent of their field-goal triess and 63 percent of their 3-pointers.
That lead quickly swelled to 21 (48-27) before Kentucky scored 10 straight points to briefly get back in the game as pro-UK crowd shook the arena with "Go Big Blue! Go Big Blue!"
Stallings quickly called time.
"Coach just said, 'We need to play our game -- relax,'" recalled guard Kyle Fuller, who was one of four Commodores reaching double figures with 10 points.
Within 84 seconds, the Vandy lead was back to 16. UK never drew closer than 12 the rest of the night.
Said Fuller of the Big Blue Nation he helped deflate: "It was fun to have all those people not say a word."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...
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