NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- Seniors Sam Howard and Darius Coulibaly had been around for five years. They had experienced wins over every SEC team except Kentucky.
But on Senior Night, in their final home game as collegians, Howard, Coulibaly and fellow senior Chuck Moore finally got to taste victory over the Big Blue. Vanderbilt humbled the No. 11 Wildcats 86-73, and broke a nine-year, 18-game losing streak to Kentucky.
It was one of those wonderful, logic-defying nights at ye olde Memorial Gym. Just seven short days ago, after a pair of demoralizing 66-43 losses, Commodore fans were ready to fall on their swords. Now, after consecutive victories over arch-nemeses Tennessee and Kentucky, fans in Black and Gold have reason to thump their chests once again.
It's almost mind-boggling to think that just one week ago these Commodores (16-12, 6-9 in the SEC), who looked comatose in home losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina, were almost considered a lock for sixth place in the rugged SEC East. Now they've moved into a three-way tie for fourth with Tennessee and South Carolina.
"This was as good as we've played all season," said Coach Kevin Stallings. "And what a great night for it to come on."
It was as though the entire team simultaneously awakened on Senior Night and put on an astounding show for the sellout crowd of 14,168. Keyed by Brendan Plavich's six 3-pointers, the Commodores jumped out to a 10-point lead at the half and maintained it most of the second period.
"It was just one of those nights where I felt like, when the ball was hitting my hands, it was going in," said Plavich.
Plavich finished with 20 points, and Matt Freije and Chuck Moore added 19 apiece. But perhaps the key to the win was the play of two freshmen big men who did battle with Kentucky's deep and long-armed frontcourt.
Brian Thornton, a Louisville, Ky. product overlooked by the Wildcats, turned in his second straight stellar performance with 17 points on 5-of-6 from the floor, 7-of-9 from the line, and 9 rebounds. And Corey Smith lifted the Commodores with his aggressiveness, his 8 points, his 7 big assists, and his ability as a big man to dribble past Kentucky's withering pressure.
It was Vanderbilt's third win over a Top 25 team this season, and it gave Vandy a "quality win" for post-season tournament committees to consider. Suddenly the Commodores are again looking like a team you wouldn't want to play in March.
Vanderbilt had not beaten Kentucky since January, 1993, when Billy McCaffrey, Chris Lawson & Co. upset Rick Pitino's No. 1 Wildcats, 101-86. Since that memorable night, the Big Blue had reeled off a string of 18 straight wins over Vanderbilt, including a 67-59 decision back on Feb. 13 of this year.
But you can now file tonight's game away with all the other great home wins over Kentucky through Memorial Gym's 50 years. The home crowd, held off momentarily by the police, stormed the floor in jubilation shortly after the final buzzer. And why not? We were all a lot younger the last time Vandy beat Kentucky.
For Kevin Stallings, it was also his first win over Kentucky and Tubby Smith. The Commodore coach had lost his first 5 meetings vs. the Wildcats.
"Our team is playing more aggressively," said Stallings. "The first word I wrote on the board tonight was ATTACK. I felt we had to go get Kentucky. We were the aggressors the entire game tonight. The team that does that usually wins the game."
Hats off to 'em. The Commodores have one more SEC game before the tournament, Saturday at Arkansas. But hey, let them enjoy this one for at least 24 hours. This was one Senior Night no one will ever forget.