The Vanderbilt Commodores finished on the right side of a thrilling finish at home, picking up a much-needed victory over the LSU Tigers 77-71 after four straight losses.
With Matthew Fisher-Davis out again with a right shoulder injury suffered against Kentucky, Riley LaChance picked up most of the scoring load, and Payton Willis ate some of the minutes on the court left behind by Fisher-Davis’ 11.9 points and 27.7 minutes per game, per Basketball Reference.
On Fisher-Davis’ injury and the possibility of season-ending surgery, Coach Drew responded that the team is still waiting on an update.
“When we talk to the doctor we’ll get more information,” he said. “I’m not good on shoulders, I can’t really talk about what the doctor’s going to recommend for him.”
Here are three thoughts from Saturday’s win.
Riley LaChance puts on a Dazzling Display
LaChance needed a bounce-back game after back-to-back poor performances, as he put up just five points against Mississippi State and six points against Kentucky. It was clear early on that today’s game would be different, as 12 minutes into the game, he had already poured in 11 points, showing off his sweet shooting stroke.
The senior sharpshooter finished with 26 points on 8 for 14 shooting, including 4 for 7 on three pointers. His makes came through a beautiful collection of twisting jumpers from deep and nifty runners off the backboard. He also made two clutch free throws, shooting 6 for 6 on free throws overall, a welcome sight after his misses down the stretch against Kentucky.
This season, LaChance has averaged 8.1 field goal attempts per game, per Basketball Reference, but today he attempted 14 field goals with Fisher-Davis out.
When asked if he should be more aggressive in taking shots, LaChance said he doesn’t think so.
“Just playing within the offense,” LaChance said. “[Today], I think I took a little bit more, and guys did a good job finding me and creating open shots for me.”
The Commodores will need him to continue to exhibit his senior leadership and play on the court. In games where LaChance does not provide a strong scoring performance, the Commodores have very little chance of picking up a win.
Continued Struggles Defending Bigs
Vanderbilt has had its struggles defending in the post this season, and today looked no different. Duop Reath of the LSU Tigers shot 13-20 for 31 points, many through the post.
Djery Baptiste was mainly responsible for Reath, with Clevon Brown and Ejike Obinna seeing a few possessions on him as well. Baptiste gave a strong and disciplined effort, absorbing Reath’s bumps, maintaining good positioning and staying out of foul trouble. He avoided picking up his first foul until there was 8:56 left in the game, and finishing with just three fouls.
However, his performance was not effective enough, as he was a major part of Reath scoring 18.6 points above his season average of 12.4, per Basketball Reference.
Drew provided a mixed review on Baptiste’s defense.
“He had three blocks,” he said. “I think that’s a positive. [He’ll] try to get a little better at contesting at the end of it, but his positioning was much better today. That next step will be after you’re in the right position, what can you do to help stop them from scoring.”
Until the Commodores find greater success defending big men, they will continue to cede an advantage in the matchup at the center position. Obinna and Brown have not proven to be consistent answers either, and doubling the post has seen mixed results.
Saben Lee’s Continued Growth
Commodore fans are well-acquainted with Saben Lee’s ability to pull off impressive dunks with his speed, handle, and athleticism. He delivered the exclamation points of today’s game in clutch time with a one-handed dunk in transition and an incredible runner off the backboard while being fouled.
Early on, after the third game of the season, a win over UNC Asheville, Drew already recognized Lee’s talent, but also his room for growth as a floor general.
“[Lee] does a lot of things out there you can’t teach,” Drew said after that win early in the season. “I think he got winded a little bit. He’s a freshman, so there’s a lot of decisions out there that hopefully as the year progresses he’ll make better reads.”
Not only did he take over today’s game down the stretch, but he also continued to demonstrate maturity in making better reads and creating offense for his teammates, as well as playing really strong defense.
He made multiple impressive passes, including a hook pass to the opposite wing for a LaChance three, an on-target look to a cutting Roberson for the easy layup, and one-handed bounce pass feeds to the post.
Lee is a highlight waiting to happen, but it is his progress in contributing to the flow of the offense through good decision-making that should encourage fans the most.
Drew highlighted his patience.
“He was really working on the defensive end,” he said. “I thought he did a tremendous job. I think he was really patient, a good sign of good maturity. When his time came, he definitely took advantage of it.”
He took over the game at the end, but there is one play he probably wants back. With the Commodores in possession of the ball, up four with less than 40 seconds left, he threw a cross-court pass that was nearly stolen.
Lee has opportunity for growth still, and that is exciting.
In a welcomed change, the Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the LSU Tigers 77-71 thanks to some late-game heroics from Saben Lee and Riley LaChance.
LaChance led the Commodores with 26 points on 8 for 14 shooting. The bulk of those points came from long distance, as he was 4-7 from three-point range.
The Commodores never seemed to jump to a comfortable lead in the first half, with LSU hovering around. The score was 34-28, with Vanderbilt needing every bit of LaChance’s 13 points to maintain the lead.
However, the team was able to extend their lead in the beginning of the second half in large part due the lethal combination of Jeff Roberson and LaChance. The duo combined for 46 points.
At one point, Vanderbilt stretched its lead to 16 points, but LSU used a 8-0 run to narrow the gap to 56-54.
Duop Reath was the catalyst for the Tigers, converting tough looks in the post as well as drawing fouls on the offensive end. The Commodores didn’t have an answer for him. Reath was constantly winning in the post, leaving head coach Bryce Drew scrambling to find an answer. The combination of Djery Baptiste, Clevon Brown, and Ejike Obinna weren’t enough, as Reath had 31 points on 20 shots.
Both teams traded baskets for several minutes down the stretch. The Commodores then went 4:15 without a made field goal before LSU took their first lead of the game on a Reath bucket with 2:21 left in regulation. From there, it was a hotly contested back-and-forth affair, with Lee’s heroics rescuing the Commodores from an all-too-familiar position.
Lee came in clutch in the final minutes of the game with a signature dunk following a steal on the other end of the floor. That gave the Commodores a lead they would not relinquish with a minute left to play.
Shortly after, Lee converted a layup and drew a foul on LSU’s Reath. Lee roared with passion after that play, energizing the crowd and the bench.
Lee scored 10 of the team’s final 12 points to seal the game. Drew had effusive praise for the freshman from Phoenix, noting a “great pace and great calmness about him.”
While Lee’s offensive brilliance shined in the final two minutes of the game, it was his defensive hustle in the first half that Drew highlighted.
“He did a tremendous job on Tremont Waters,” he said. “His patience showed a lot of maturity. His deflection and dunk on the other end were huge for us.”
An underrated part of the game in the first half was Lee’s ability to distribute the ball for his teammates. He had four assists, leading all players in the first half. Those recipients were able to draw fouls or score easily as a result of Lee drawing the defense around him.
In the second half, he started taking more shots, and they were falling. By the end of the game, he had 12 points on 5 for 7 shooting.
This was a well-deserved and much-needed win for the Commodores. Drew was proud of his guys, calling it “great to see our hard work rewarded,” after being on the losing end of the previous 4 games.
It was also “a tremendous redemption story” for senior Riley LaChance, according to Drew. LaChance had some noted late-game struggles, including four missed free throws against Kentucky just a week ago. He put a lot of extra work in the gym working on free throws and his shooting technique. It paid off this game in the form of four made free throws in the last two minutes of the game.
The Commodores follow this game with a matchup against the 21st-ranked Tennessee Volunteers on January 23rd in Knoxville. Tip off is at 6:00 PM.
When senior guard Riley LaChance, an 89% free-throw shooter entering the game, stepped to the charity strike with 29 seconds remaining in the second half and the Commodores trailing by four points, those were the odds he’d miss all three of his free throws.
Inexplicably, those odds proved to be in Kentucky’s favor, as LaChance proceeded to miss all three of his attempts.
Those misses proved to be the final nail in Vanderbilt’s coffin, as Kentucky finished off the Commodores by a final score of 74-67.
Combined with a free-throw miss earlier in the half on the front end of a one-and-one, LaChance was 0-4 from the line in the game. However, according to senior Jeff Roberson, that’s not the stat line that shows who Riley LaChance really is.
“We talked about it as a team after it,” he said. “Coach Drew especially made it clear that those free throws don’t define him. We’d rather have him on the line than anybody else. We trust him regardless. He’s going to shoot, he’s going to keep shooting and he’s going to make them. It doesn’t define him, he going to keep his head up and not lose confidence because he is a great player.”
LaChance was visibly upset with himself afterwards. Normally a sharpshooter, he missed all of his free-throw attempts and three-point attempts in this game, scoring just six points.
Even for a seasoned veteran like LaChance, that kind of game can take a toll on confidence. It’s the mark of a true athlete to be able to put something like that behind you.
Head coach Bryce Drew expects nothing more than that from LaChance going forward.
“He really doesn’t have a choice,” Drew said. “If you want to be a basketball player, you’ve got to have confidence. We talked about it in there, missing these three free throws doesn’t define you. You need to come back and get in the gym and we’re going to work tomorrow and we’re going to get better.”
“That’s the only choice he has. If he chooses a different path, it won’t be the choice that our program is going. He’s only going to have one choice in our program which way to go with his confidence.”
LaChance’s misses at the line did not cost the Commodores a lead or the game, however, as Kentucky was one step ahead of the Commodores the whole way through. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a thorn in Vanderbilt’s side throughout the afternoon, putting up 22 points and adding six assists. Jeff Roberson led the way for the Commodores with 20 points.
Vanderbilt did pretty much everything right defensively for most of the first half. They had four steals in the first half and picked up 11 defensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. If it weren’t for a few less-than-stellar foul calls and some breakdowns in the final minutes of the half, the Commodores could have held the Wildcats to less than 30 points in the half.
Kentucky players found themselves double-teamed every time they got the ball in the post. Drew said that was a game plan development that they beat to death in practice.
On the offensive side, it was a different story. After a great three-point shooting performance against Tennessee earlier in the week, Vanderbilt was 1 for 11 from long-range in the first half. They kept themselves alive and within a few points for most of the first half thanks to seven offensive rebounds.
Roberson said the team severely underperformed from long range in the first half.
“Their zone is pretty long, but I think we still had very good shots that we just didn’t knock down that we’re more than capable of,” he said. “We got a few more to fall in the second half, but it was just a matter of being ready to shoot. A couple of guys passed up some shots.”
Freshman phenom Saben Lee struggled with Kentucky’s sheer size on defense, getting stuffed at the rim on multiple occasions. However, he did get free for a highlight-reel alley-oop. Lee finished the first half with two points, two rebounds and an assist. He picked up his play in the second half to finish with 12 points and three assists.
Djery Baptiste made the all-hustle team in the first half. Despite some offensive blunders, his effort did not go unnoticed. Midway through the first frame, he missed an easy layup, but quickly made up for it with a block and an offensive board on the ensuing possession. Baptiste did pick up a pair of fouls, but still managed two blocks, two boards and two points in the first half.
Vanderbilt kept the score within six points for most of the half, but went the last 4:25 of the first half without a field goal and the last 2:50 without a point. A P.J. Washington free-throw and Sacha Killeya-Jones put-back layup in the dying second of the half brought Kentucky’s advantage to 36-27 at the half.
The second half started out as the polar opposite of the first half. Vanderbilt started hitting their shots, but looked as if they lost a step on defense. Kentucky had an easier time getting penetration in the paint and Gilgeous-Alexander started getting hot. A Payton Willis corner three-pointer got the Commodores within two points, but a quick bucket by Gilgeous-Alexander and a steal-and-score by Kevin Knox took the Wildcats’ advantage back up to six points at the under-12 minute timeout.
Drew said his defensive gameplan didn’t change in the second half to let Kentucky get more tough buckets.
“I think in the first half they just scored once on our double-teams and in the second half they got more just flat-out driving the ball,” he said. “I want to say over half of their baskets were non-assist baskets, so that’s just one-on-one driving it at us.”
Willis gave Vanderbilt its first lead of the half with a layup with 7:58 to go, but Kentucky quickly responded with a Washington dunk. Kentucky was clinging to a one-point advantage at the 6:19 mark.
Vanderbilt struggled to hit shots as the game approached the three-minute mark. A Knox and-one and follow-up layup put Kentucky ahead 64-59 with three minutes to play. Even after a Roberson up-and-under layup, a Hamidou Diallo corner three-pointer essentially clinched it for Kentucky.
The Commodores wouldn’t go down quietly, though. LaChance hit a layup and followed up a steal by getting fouled on a three-point attempt. However, his three rare misses from the line sealed Vanderbilt’s fate.
This was Vanderbilt’s seventh loss this season by ten points or less. That fact was not lost on Roberson, who is ready to start winning some tight ball games.
“We do have confidence,” he said. “We’re in every game, we’ve just got to find a way to break through and win these games. Being close is not good enough. It’s old. Everybody’s sick of it. We’ve got to win.”
Vanderbilt will hit the floor again on Tuesday when they take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville.