NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A towel draped over his head and his eyes filled with tears, sophomore guard Ryan Harrow sat in a despondent Kentucky locker room Friday night and tried to make sense of a performance that likely sealed the Wildcats’ postseason fate.
Harrow shouldered the blame for Kentucky’s ugly 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, a loss that may well keep the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the past 22 years.
“I didn’t start off well, and it just trickled down to everybody else. I apologize,” said Harrow, who suffered through a nightmarish 2-of-15 shooting night, many of his misses drives to the basket.
“Of course, we want to get to the [NCAA] tournament, because if we play well, we can beat anybody. I basically just messed it up for us.”
The truth is that he had plenty of help. Nobody played particularly well for Kentucky, while Vanderbilt played lights-out.
The Commodores (16-16) are playing their best basketball of the season, and after being left for dead three weeks ago, have won six of their past seven games.
They placed four players in double figures Friday and turned it over only five times, while holding Kentucky to a season-low 48 points.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a team as I am this team,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose red-hot Commodores will face Ole Miss on Saturday in the semifinals.
Vanderbilt shot 59.1 percent from the field in the first half and built a 14-point halftime lead. That lead swelled to 21 points less than four minutes into the second half, and Kentucky never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.
As the final seconds ticked down, the Vanderbilt students were taunting the Kentucky team with chants of “NIT, NIT.” Stallings quickly motioned for them to stop, but that’s precisely where the Wildcats may be headed.
Kentucky coach John Calipari almost seemed braced for the worst.
“When you play a game like this, it hurts you,” Calipari said. “But the good news is everyone else is losing, too. So at the end of the day, it will shake out and I trust the [selection] committee to put the right teams in. If we’re in, we’ll play better. And if we’re not in, we’re not. I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it.
“We had an opportunity. It was in our hands to take it out of everybody’s hands, and we didn’t take care of business.
“We laid an egg.”
A smelly one, at that. But Calipari was careful to praise Vanderbilt.
“They had more energy than us,” Calipari said. “I told my team for three days that the hardest thing in tournament play is to have a bye and have a team that’s playing well play a game and then come up against you.
“So it was a combination of everything. I don’t want to take anything away from Vandy. They played great. We laid an egg. We had one guy go 2-for-15 and miss 12 layups.”
Kentucky’s résumé, especially since Nerlens Noel went down with his season-ending injury back on Feb. 12, has been mediocre at best. The Wildcats (21-11) have lost five of their past nine games and haven’t won away from home since they beat Texas A&M on Feb. 2.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped the Wildcats out of his latest projection for the NCAA tournament field and had them among the “first four out.”
The Kentucky players said they will do their best not to think about it until the selection show Sunday night.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult knowing how badly we played,” Kentucky sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “You have to give them credit, but it’s going to be difficult waiting to see if our name is called.”