Win over Harvard gives validation as Vanderbilt turns the corner


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Vanderbilt found another way to beat Kentucky.

Don't lose to Harvard.

The logic might be convoluted but put yourself in Kevin Stallings' place. Vandy's coach insisted there would be no loss of focus four days after that epic win Sunday over the No. 1 Wildcats in the SEC tournament. But he didn't know for sure until his team took the floor 1,200 miles from the loving arms of Nashville.

Vanderbilt's win over Kentucky wouldn't have worn off anytime soon regardless, but on Thursday it was validated with a 79-70 triumph in the opening round of the East Regional over the No. 12-seeded Crimson. The Commodores are validated because they had lost their last three opening-round games dating back to 2008. Vandy's validated because it's in the bracket for the third consecutive season and for the fifth time in six years. That's never happened at Vanderbilt.

Neither has a tournament win in five years.

"The way this whole game unfolded was the best-case scenario for us," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "I'm not sure you ever really get to exorcise ... rid those demons, unless you get into a close game. I didn't want to be in that type of situation. Since we won, I'm glad it unfolded that way."

Told you it was convoluted. Stallings can't let go of what he twice referred as "negativity" regarding those first-round losses.

So, yes, the win over Kentucky is validated because two weeks ago Stallings said this NCAA tournament would define his team's season. There was validation because no matter how much this game was a push in the classroom, Vanderbilt was the genius on the floor.

The Commodores led by as many as 18, saw the lead shrink to five with less than two minutes left then put the game in the capable hands of junior guard John Jenkins. You should remember him. The senior all-SEC guard was the most valuable player of the conference tournament. If the 'Dores are going to do anything further this month he must come close to duplicating Thursday -- 27 points and one turnover in 32 minutes.

"It's well publicized Vandy's losses [in the tournament] the last few years," Harvard guard Oliver McNally said. "We were hanging around, maybe putting that [thought] in their head." Canadian Laurent Rivard seemed like he was shooting from across the border, nailing six of seven threes to lead a Harvard comeback. But as Stallings said, the margin of the win made it sweeter. Grit was better than a blowout for a team that might have been questioning itself.

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If there was any doubt about the Commodores' post-Kentucky will it started to evaporate midway through the second half. Vandy already had a comfortable 11-point lead but then played a little Occupy Harvard. The 'Dores wouldn't leave the offensive zone without being tased.

Festus Ezeli rebounded a Ron Odom 3-point miss.

Ezeli then rebounded consecutive 3-point misses by Jenkins.

Coming out of a scrum, Jenkins drained a 17-footer from the side and was fouled. The Crimson were red-faced. They were supposed to be the spunky upstart not having been in the tournament in 66 years. It was the Commodores who wouldn't go away.

"Festus just turned into the biggest, baddest dude on the floor at that point," Stallings said. "He really controlled the inside lane for us defensively ... Thank goodness for Festus."

Ezeli, Vandy's massive 6-foot-11 center from Nigeria, also validated his Kentucky performance. Going up against player of the year favorite Anthony Davis, Ezeli had what he called a "surreal" performance (17 points, four dunks). He followed that up against Harvard with eight points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.

"Our big guys had to square up against some monsters down there," Harvard guard Oliver McNally said.

Monsters who aren't done yet. There is something to be said for the Commodores' six seniors who have never been this far in the NCAA tournament -- all the way to a second game. That one is Saturday against Wisconsin.

"Now they've got to experience the one thing they haven't experienced since they got to Vanderbilt," Stallings said after the win. "Don't' take that to mean we're satisfied because we're obviously not."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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