TAMPA — The scene Friday night inside Amalie Arena resembled a Lightning game minus the ice and sticks: lots of blue, bombast and, at times, a breakneck pace.
Big difference was, nobody skated, least of all the de facto home team.
The thousands of Wildcat zealots who shoehorned themselves inside Amalie could only buoy their own team. They couldn’t break the spirit of a resurgent Vanderbilt club seeking its third SEC tournament triumph in as many nights.
In the end, third-seeded Kentucky (26-6) pulled one out without ever pulling away, surviving a long-range clinic by Vanderbilt junior Jordan Wright (27 points) for a 77-71 victory.
“Third game in three nights, and they never stopped and played to the horn,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “And that’s amazing. We thought we could get into their legs at some point in the second half, and it didn’t happen.”
In an ebb-and-flow contest, the lone constant was the roar of the devout legion known as the Big Blue Nation, which clearly composed much of the announced evening-session audience of 17,132. It returns en masse for today’s 3 p.m. semifinal against No. 2-seeded Tennessee (24-7).
“It felt like a home game for them,” Wright said. “It felt like we were playing at Rupp (Arena).”
The 11th-seeded Commodores (17-16) appeared unfazed, never allowing Kentucky to build a double-digit advantage in the first half despite an early 12-0 Wildcats run. By intermission, the lead already had changed hands eight times.
Early in the second, a 39-33 Kentucky lead dissipated before you could say unconscious. Vanderbilt answered with 13 consecutive points on the strength of three consecutive 3-pointers, two of them by Wright. A layup in traffic by Scotty Pippen Jr. gave the Commodores a 46-39 lead.
Even the presumed momentum swings were momentary.
No whistle was blown when Kentucky guard Davion Mintz appeared to run into Vandy senior Rodney Chatman on a 3-point try. When Kentucky junior Savion Wheeler got the loose ball and fed it to fellow guard TyTy Washington Jr. for a transition layup, irate Vandy coach Jerry Stackhouse was issued a technical.
That was the key sequence during a 9-0 Kentucky run that gave the Wildcats a 55-47 lead. But Vandy scored 11 of the next 15 points, highlighted by Chatman’s backcourt steal and ensuing layup.
Washington’s consecutive 3-pointers in a 48-second span gave Kentucky a 67-58 advantage with 5:16 to play, but Wright wasn’t finished. He hit two more 3-pointers, the last of which cut Kentucky’s lead to 73-69 with 54 seconds remaining. Four consecutive free throws by Washington (25 points) in the last 18 seconds finally sealed it.
Wright’s errant long-range shot with four seconds to play was his only missed 3-pointer of the night in six attempts. Even on a night when Pippen (1-of-7 from long range) admittedly grew fatigued and struggled, Vanderbilt still shot 39.3 percent (11-of-28) from long range.
“I kept saying, ‘Why aren’t we up more? We’re shooting 50 percent (from the floor), they’re shooting 38. Why are we not up more?’” Calipari said. “Well, they got some offensive rebounds, and they made 11 (3-pointers).
“You would think they were tired. They weren’t that tired.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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