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 there’s a lull in the game and you need a spark, who you gonna call?
For the Vanderbilt Commodores, it’s Saben Lee.
The electrifying freshman has been making some sensational plays throughout the year, including his posterizing dunk on Tuesday night against Tennessee.
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) January 10, 2018
It’s those plays that give the Commodores a boost when things are getting sluggish.
“Yeah, I think it energizes all of us,” Riley LaChance said on Thursday. “It energizes the fans in the building. He’s done that a couple of times this season. He makes some spectacular plays for us that definitely get us going.”
With a showdown against Kentucky looming on Saturday, LaChance says the Commodores will need as many high-energy moments as possible.
“Yeah, I think from him or from anybody else,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a dunk or anything, it could be diving on the floor for a loose ball or defensive play. We just have to continue to play hard and play aggressive.”
It hasn’t just been Lee’s electrifying, high-flying plays that have been impressive. His overall skill set has improved. For example, he is making more three-pointers than he used to, which has been a huge boost.
Head coach Bryce Drew has been happy with how Lee has developed throughout the season.
“Saben’s been really good for the last couple of weeks,” Drew said. “He’s really elevated his game, he’s making good decisions and we need that from him. If he can have a real dynamic play like that, hopefully the crowd gets into it and helps our other players play with more energy.”
That dynamic play has given Lee a chance to be a regular in the starting lineup. Meanwhile, senior Matthew Fisher-Davis has found himself coming off the bench more often than not.
Despite not being in the starting lineup, Fisher-Davis is playing some impressive basketball. He’s third on the team in minutes played per game, second on the team in points per game, third in blocks and second in rebounds per game, even beating out center Djery Baptiste in rebounds per game.
When asked if Fisher-Davis was playing with an edge to get back into the starting lineup, Drew praised his senior but was hesitant to say if he would get a spot in the lineup.
“Hopefully he continues to shoot the ball well and continues to improve on his defense,” Fisher-Davis said. “He’s a big part of our team and we need him to play well.”
To Fisher-Davis’ credit, the reason he might not be in the starting lineup is because Drew intentionally doesn’t want to commit to a single starting lineup. He has rotated the lineups game in and game out depending on the team he is facing. Towards the end of non-conference play, the team rolled out a smaller lineup, but has since added more size to face tougher SEC opponents.
As for this weekend’s matchup against Kentucky, Drew still couldn’t commit to a lineup.
“It’s going to be game-to-game,” he said. “We’re going to see how practice is going the next couple of days, see how matchups go and go from there. Obviously, we’d love to get a flow and get a consistent lineup, but we’re just not there yet in our program.”
It’s safe to say Drew will need some size against the Wildcats, a team without a traditional big man but with plenty of size across the board. The Commodores will have to play a complete game in order to spring the upset on Kentucky.
“We have to rebound,” he said. “We have to take away easy points in the paint. We’ve had career nights for two bigs in our last two games. We’ve got to do a better job making them earn points a little bit harder.”
Vanderbilt take on Kentucky at 3 PM central on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.
In this week’s episode of the Hustler Sports 20 on the 615 Sports Drive on VandyRadio, sports editors Cutler Klein and Max Schneider break down what went wrong in Vanderbilt’s tough loss on Tuesday night to the Tennessee Volunteers.
They also delve into why Vol Twitter is the worst Twitter out there.
Finally, Cutler and Max make the case for Matthew Fisher-Davis to be re-inserted into the starting lineup.
The Hustler Sports 20 is the official Vanderbilt Hustler sports show, featured on the 615 Sports Drive, airing every Wednesday at 6 PM central time on VandyRadio.
Listen in here: