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Oscar Tshiebwe goes up for two of his 11 points against Vanderbilt’s Liam Robbins during Kentucky’s 77-70 win on Feb. 2 at Rupp Arena.

TAMPA, Fla. — Beating a team three times in a single season is one of the most difficult feats in sports. If Kentucky wants to advance to Saturday’s SEC Tournament semifinals, that’s exactly what they’ll need to do when they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores in Friday night’s quarterfinals.

“The other team will play more inspired,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of facing a team for a third time. “I can’t remember. I’ve done this so long and have coached a thousand games that you know how many times I’ve been in this position. I can’t even tell you. Probably won some, probably lost some.

“We played them twice. They were both wars. “They’re playing good. I think they’ve won how many in a row now, three or four in a row, so it’s going to be a hard game for us. They’re dangerous and playing as well as anybody in our league right now.”

With an 82-76 upset win over No. 6 seeded Alabama in Thursday night’s quarterfinals, the No. 11 seeded Commodores are officially in the mix to become an NCAA Tournament bid stealer.

Kentucky’s first matchup against Vanderbilt came in Nashville on Jan. 11 where UK cruised to a 78-66 victory behind a 30-point performance from Oscar Tshiebwe. UK then swept the series with a 77-70 win in Lexington on Feb. 2 despite Commodores star Scotty Pippen Jr. scoring 33 points.

The second contest between the two teams was a chippy one as Vanderbilt’s Jamaine Mann and Tshiebwe picked up flagrant ones while both head coaches were called for technical fouls.

“Just a rival game,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said Thursday night. “We’ve been on the wrong end of that rivalry for a while, but I think we’re closing the gap, and I just think you’re going to have that ‘chippiness’ on both sides.

“I thought our guys were battling hard, just wanted to make sure we gave ourselves a fair chance to win the game,” Stackhouse said. “We had a stretch in there that we were playing hard, and I didn’t feel like our guys were getting the benefit of the doubt, so I’m going to always ride for my guys and make sure that they know I’m supporting them in their effort. At the end of the day, nothing more than just a spirited college basketball game, came out on the wrong side of it, but it was an exciting game on both sides.”

A third meeting with Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament wasn’t a matchup Calipari was hoping for after his team earned a hard-fought season sweep.

“They did good stuff. They run good stuff. They create good shots. I’m glad we’re done playing them,” Calipari said after the Feb. 2 win. “If we see them again, it will be in the tournament, and I hope we don’t see them in the tournament.”

In the regular season, Vanderbilt went just 16-16 with a 7-11 conference record before crushing No. 14 seeded Georgia 86-51 in the first round Wednesday and upset Alabama Thursday.

Kentucky owns a 12-game winning streak over Vanderbilt that dates back to 2016. Stackhouse, who took over the program in 2019, has never beaten the Wildcats.

The two teams have met twice in the SEC Tournament during the Calipari era, with Vanderbilt winning both matchups. The Commodores beat Kentucky in the 2012 conference tournament title game, but UK later when on to win the NCAA national championship.

Vandy also handed UK a 2013 tournament defeat in Calipari’s first of two seasons at UK in which he failed to bring the team to the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s Commodores are led in scoring by the first-team All-SEC selection Pippen Jr., who entered Thursday’s win over Alabama averaging an SEC-leading 20.3 points per game while adding 4.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds.

He scored 26 in the win over the Crimson Tide.

“Pippen’s killed us,” Calipari said of the Vanderbilt star.

“He’s really crafty and then offensively when he gets going whether it’s shooting threes, he’s a great lay-up shooter. He creates space. He snakes in on pick and rolls. He’s a really crafty player with that ball.”

Vanderbilt’s only chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament would be winning the SEC Tournament.

“I mean it’s March,” Vanderbilt’s Rodney Chatman said. “These are the games we live for, games we grew up watching on TV. This is the moment now. I think we’re going to be ready for tomorrow; we’re going to show up and perform on the court.

“They beat us twice, but it’s March anything can happen as long we believe and trust in ourselves, anything can happen.”

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