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.
In any American high school gym, you could find kids as young as six years old playing recreational basketball on the weekends.
Most rec leagues have all the fix-ins, such as uniforms and referees and coaches.
However, that wasn’t the experience for Vanderbilt Freshman center Blessing Ejiofor. She had never played a real basketball game with an officiating crew until she was a freshman in high school in Ebonyi, Nigeria.
“Usually I would go to the basketball court and watch people play,” she told The Vanderbilt Hustler. “And when they would leave, I would shoot free throws.”
Before her first basketball game, that was the extent of freshman center Blessing Ejiofor’s basketball experience.
“Basketball is huge in Nigeria, but here in America, you have all the facilities you need,” she said.
She mentioned how many Nigerian NBA and WNBA players are coming back to the country to build basketball courts, which is a welcome change from five years ago, when most players did not even return home to give back to the community.
Two of Ejiofor’s role models are Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, the Nigerian-American sisters who starred at Stanford before both were first overall picks in the WNBA draft. Both return to Nigeria almost every year to run basketball camps.
Although the basketball infrastructure in Nigeria has been improving, realized she could find greater opportunities elsewhere and moved to Paterson, New Jersey, for her sophomore year of high school.
She was initially supposed to attend a school in North Carolina, but was informed once she landed in the United States that there was no host family available to house her there.
“I was just excited to be in America,” Ejiofor said.
Adjusting to a new life in New Jersey was difficult. She called her mother daily, but still admitted that the transition was tough, as even minute cultural differences could sometimes cause friction.
Ejiofor said that in Nigeria, “when someone older is talking to you, you don’t look them straight in the eye.” However, she found that in the United States, that was considered to be a sign of disrespect.
She cited the higher quality education and vast opportunities in America as the reasons she worked through such differences and finished high school in Paterson.
When the time came to choose a university to continue her academic and athletic career, Ejiofor had many options. Duke, LSU, Syracuse, and Miami were among the 20th-ranked center’s many offers. Vanderbilt’s unmatched academics stood out to her and her father, and were a major factor in her signing with the Commodores.
“I always wanted to go to Vanderbilt even when I was back in Nigeria,” Ejiofor said. “I knew I was going to come here.”
Everything was looking up for Ejiofor, but an immigration snafu had other ideas.
In September 2016, she was forced to take a year-long leave of absence when her visa expired. Her visa needed to be renewed in Nigeria after every two years, but she was unable to go back and renew it in time.
Last year, she joined a gym and worked out four to five days a week to try to stay in shape in preparation for when she could rejoin the team.
“I wasn’t in great shape, but I wasn’t out of shape completely,” Ejiofor said.
Even though she couldn’t be with the team has head coach Stephanie White took over the program, she still felt like a Commodore already.
“They were really supportive,” she said of her teammates and coaches at Vanderbilt. “They did everything they could possibly do to get me back.”
Her coaches even wrote to the U.S. Embassy in an attempt to speed up the process of obtaining a new visa for her.
After a year of paperwork and waiting, Ejiofor was granted a visa to return to the United States, and she enrolled at Vanderbilt this year.
Being out of school for a year made the academic transition crazy and stressful according to Ejiofor. With the help of her academic counselor, assistant coach Carolyn Peck, and her teammates, she was able to handle the workload.
Like many Vanderbilt students, Blessing remarked that she had to learn how to study once she experienced the university’s rigorous academics.
On the court, Ejiofor has come off the bench in 15 games. Her 6’5” frame has been useful against taller SEC competition.
Coach White’s fast-paced style of play was the complete opposite of what Ejiofor had been accustomed to.
“Back home, they just wanted me to be in the paint,” she said. “But here [the coaches] try to make you go out of your comfort zone as a post player.”
Ejiofor is optimistic about this team, which she describes as resilient and passionate.
“We have a vision, and we are going to get there soon,” she said.
Vanderbilt fell to defending national champions and 10th-ranked South Carolina 95-82.
The game likely would have been more one-sided if All-American forward A’ja Wilson was not sidelined with an ankle sprain. Wilson is the two-time defending SEC Player of the Year and a leader for South Carolina.
Vanderbilt’s starting lineup of Rachel Bell, Cierra Walker, Chelsie Hall, Christa Reed, and Autumn Newby had no match for the Gamecocks’ height early in the night. Only Newby is over six feet tall, while South Carolina started three players taller than that.
South Carolina jumped out to an early 7-0 lead after the game’s first two minutes thanks to their superior rebounding. The Gamecocks finished the night with 31 rebounds, including 25 on defense.
With six minutes left in the first quarter, Coach Stephanie White subsistuted Kayla Overbeck and Kaleigh Clemons-Green into the game. Shortly after, Erin Whalen entered the game. This taller lineup fared better against a physical South Carolina defense, and Vanderbilt ended the first quarter down by only four points.
South Carolina’s defense was ferocious all night. The Gamecocks seemed to always be in the faces of Vanderbilt’s players and rarely let a shot go uncontested.
Whalen and Reed found success against that defense, though. In the first half, Whalen finished with 15 points on 75% shooting, including a perfect 3-for-3 on three-point shots. Reed added another 14 points.
Notably absent from the scoring sheet early in the game were Bell and Walker, who combined for just five points through the first two quarters. Walker found other ways to contribute, grabbing five rebounds and tallying three assists in the first half.
After two quarters of play, Vanderbilt trailed South Carolina 48-40.
The crowd was passionate throughout the game. After every controversial foul call, the fans screamed, and after every basket, they cheered as if it was the game-winning bucket.
White stuck with a taller lineup in the third quarter, and Whalen and Overbeck led an aspiring comeback. Each scored six points in the third quarter.
Early in the quarter, Vanderbilt’s defense got sloppy and started to give up easy open shots to South Carolina, but the Commodores tightened up as their offense began closing the gap.
With two minutes left in the third quarter, Vanderbilt was down by only two points.
Going into the fourth quarter, South Carolina led Vanderbilt 73-60. South Carolina forward Alexis Jennings sank a buzzer-beating three-point shot to close the third quarter and take some momentum away from the Commodores.
Still, everything seemed set up for a Commodore comeback heading into the fourth quarter. Calls started going Vanderbilt’s way, and Cierra Walker made two three-pointers early in the final quarter.
But South Carolina showed why it was a top-10 team even without its best player.
They went on a 19-7 run that started when they lead 64-62 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter and concluded not long after Overbeck fouled out four minutes into the fourth quarter.
Whalen ended the night with a career-high 25 points.
“She’s had some really good practices and came out and was aggressive,” White said of Whalen.
Reed finished with 23 points, and Walker scored 13 points to lead the Commodores.
“Christa’s been really solid,” White said. “She does so many things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
South Carolina’s leading scorers were Alexis Jennings with 27 points and LeLe Grissett who added 22 points. Both shot over 90% from the field and combined for 22 rebounds.
“They were absolutely unstoppable. They played like All-Americans,” White said of the duo.
One thing to note was that for the entirety of the game, White stood on the sideline coaching and encouraging her team, while South Carolina’s head coach Dawn Staley remained on the bench unless she was arguing a call to a referee. The Commodore bench replicated White’s passion by standing up and cheering after every basket. Their energy and intensity can make this team competitive against the mid-level SEC competition they will soon face.
Vanderbilt visits Alabama on Sunday at 2 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.
The Vanderbilt Commodores fell to No. 12 Missouri Tigers 81-70, dropping their SEC record to 0-4. It’s just the second time since the 1988-89 season that Vanderbilt has started SEC play 0-4 or worse.
Here are three thoughts from the latest Vanderblit defeat:
Saved by the Bell
Rachel Bell, who recently celebrated her 1,000th career point, once again had a solid game. The senior Bell supported the team with nine points in just 16 minutes of time on the floor. Cierra Walker made a solid contribution on both sides of the court, leading the team with 17 points and adding three assists and a steal. Walker was hot from long-range, going four for five on the night.
She hit a corner three-pointer and-one play in the first half that snapped the Commodores’ cold streak in the first quarter. She also hit a three-point shot in the final minutes of the game.
Shooters Gotta Shoot
In basketball, you need to make your shots if you want to have any shot at winning.
Vanderbilt did not do this well on Thursday.
Chelsie Hall and Erin Whalen went 0 for 3 from the field in the first quarter, and Kayla Overbeck missed an open layup to finish the second half. Even in the paint, the Commodores struggled as Missouri pulled ahead in the second half. The Commodores did well shooting from the perimeter in their thriller against Tennessee, but they were not able to create the same opportunities for themselves against Mizzou because of frequent turnovers, including four in the first half.
Head Coach Stephanie White said that Vanderbilt failed to capitalize on some of the momentum that built up on certain runs and that the team “kept looking too far ahead in the future” when it came to creating plays on offense.
Anchor Down, but D-Up
Missouri is highly-ranked, but Vanderbilt could have still done a better job limiting their scoring chances.
Vanderbilt allowed 25 points in the first quarter, 22 in the second, and 24 in the third, and just nine points in the final quarter. Granted, Mizzou pulled many of their starters in the final frame. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt’s defense incrementally improved over the course of the game and showed some promise for future games with rebounding. They grabbed a total of 30 rebounds throughout the game, including 10 offensive boards.
Vanderbilt has another opportunity to earn their first SEC win of the season on Monday when they take on Kentucky at 6:00 PM central time.
Vanderbilt fell to 12th-ranked Missouri 81-70 at home to begin SEC play 0-4.
This is just the second time since the 1988-1989 season that the Commodores have gone 0-4 or worse to start conference play. Last year, the squad went 0-7 to start the SEC slate.
For the seventh game in a row, the team allowed at least 80 points. Defense has been lacking all year, and this game was no exception. Missouri saw may open looks throughout the game.
Coach Stephanie White went small with her lineup tonight. Four guards: Rachel Bell, Cierra Walker, Chelsie Hall, and Christa Reed started with forward Autumn Newby.
The Commodores started slow against Missouri. The Tigers led by as many as 12 points in the first quarter.
Vanderbilt was plagued by foul trouble early. Standout freshman Newby picked up two fouls in the game’s first six minutes and spent much of the rest of the half on the bench.
After that, White shifted to a taller lineup with Kayla Overbeck and Erin Whalen.
Even after the shift, no one could stop Missouri guards Amber Smith and Jordan Chavis, who combined for 31 points in the first half.
Both sides had trouble maintaining possession. In the first half, Missouri committed 11 turnovers and Vanderbilt gave the ball away seven times.
Vanderbilt began the second half down 48-37.
About halfway through the third quarter, Overbeck picked up her third foul of the night and was subbed out for Blessing Ejiofor to preserve a taller lineup.
Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham, who was named to the All-American Honorable Mention team last year, was held scoreless for the game’s first 30 minutes before sinking a three-pointer. Cunningham came into Memorial Gym averaging 18.8 points per game, but was held to just five points.
The Commodores were outscored 24-10 in the third, as Missouri continued to pull away, aided by Jordan Frerick’s eight points.
Player of the Game Cierra Walker continued her recent hot streak by going 4-5 from three-point range and scoring a total of 17 points.
“She’s just really solid and she’s shooting the ball really well,” White said of Walker.
Erin Whalen added 15 points and Kayla Overbeck tacked on another 12 in her return from a concussion.
White praised Overbeck’s effort and said, “she was very efficient” when she entered the game. Overbeck went shot 100% on her four attempts.
Vanderbilt faces Kentucky next on Monday, January 15th at Memorial Gym at 6 PM.
When the ball left Riley LaChance’s hands in the closing seconds of the first half of Tuesday night’s game against Tennessee, three sounds ensued.
The first was the screaming sound of the buzzer ringing throughout the arena. The second was the swishing sound of the ball delicately descending through the net. The third was the sound of the Vanderbilt contingent, as loud as it has been all year, yelling and cheering in unison. The sense of “Memorial Magic” that had somehow eluded this team since a victory over Kentucky two years ago seemed to be back, and Vanderbilt was feeding off of it in the first half.
And just as quickly as it was there, it was gone. What looked to be a team playing its most perfect brand of basketball, to the tune of 45 first half points, looked like a shell of itself in the second period. The parading sound of the crowd became silent, and the Commodores watched the Volunteers drop 57 second-half points to earn a 92-84 victory.
The look on the faces of Saban Lee and Jeff Roberson in the postgame presser said it all. They didn’t tell the story of a team experiencing a second-half collapse for the first time. They told the story of a team that was sick and tired of not being able to get the job done during crunch time.
It’s hard to blame them. Lee looked like Kyrie Irving in the second half with the way he was able to get to the basket at will. Unfortunately, he looked like pre-LeBron Kyrie Irving, trying to pull the rest of the team behind him, fighting to earn a victory that was slowly slipping away. Roberson, for his part, knows that role all too well.
The dilemma for Bryce Drew and his team is a serious one, and it’s not a newfound one either. For the past calendar year, the Commodores have struggled mightily down the stretch in games, constantly giving up leads at alarming rates.
The first glimpse of this came on January 24th, 2017, in a home matchup versus Arkansas. The Commodores were on the verge of reaching .500 for the first time in conference play, up by 15 with just six minutes to go. With four minutes to go, the now ten-point lead still seemed sufficient, and with just 50 seconds to play, a six-point margin seemed just good enough. Suffice it to say, none of those leads held, and the Commodore faithful watched Arkansas steal a crucial game in Memorial Gym.
The weeks that followed were largely positive for Vanderbilt, telling the story of a team slowly inching its way toward a tournament bid. The setbacks, though, while not disastrous in the grand scheme of things, continued the narrative from the Arkansas debacle. Vanderbilt watched a close first-half game turn into a blowout at the hands of Missouri, a six-point halftime lead flip to a six-point defeat against Kentucky, and a neck-and-neck rematch against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament turn into a rout that that at one point reached a 27-point deficit. That was all topped off with questionable decision-making in the final seconds against Northwestern in the NCAA tournament.
For Vanderbilt fans, however, none of that mattered much. The ends seemed to justify the means. A tournament berth in Bryce Drew’s first year was an improvement over the previous season’s campaign, and with a successful season like that, it didn’t matter how they got there. Sure, there were a few bumps in the road, but there was hope for the future.
Now, however, the near future has arrived, and those late game demons are still rearing their heads. This time, Vanderbilt doesn’t have a winning record, or a prospective tournament bid to fall back on. A 6-10 record halfway through the year has the Commodores on the outside looking in, not just for the NCAA Tournament, but for any postseason berth at all.
The Commodores have had their chances all year. In the team’s first real test against USC at home, Vanderbilt was able to handle the tenth ranked Trojans all game, jumping out to an early lead in the first half and holding on until the final moments. Poor defensive play on the block, however, allowed USC to continue to score in the paint, and Trojans’ forward Chimezie Metu dominated overtime to get the win.
The next out-of-conference home test came against Kansas State, and once again, the Commodores found themselves in the heat of a close game in the final minutes. Again, though, Vanderbilt struggled to defend in the paint, giving the Wildcats easy points in the form of layups and free throws. Kansas State scored on every possession in the final four minutes to close it out. Middle Tennessee State had no trouble replicating these past two low-post performances down the stretch in its road win against the Commodores.
A one-point deficit at halftime turned into a double-digit loss to Arizona State, as did a one-point lead against Seton Hall and a two-point halftime lead against South Carolina. Even in a win over Alabama, Vanderbilt watched a nine-point lead with a minute and a half to play shrink to just one by the time the final buzzer sounded. Tuesday night’s loss to Tennessee was just the latest chapter in a string of sloppy endings.
With the season outlook flipped, do the ends still justify the means? A lot of people already believe they do, viewing this Vanderbilt unit as incapable of competing in the SEC, existing only to boost the conference GPA. The truth, however, is that Vanderbilt is right there. Drew’s team has shown for the bulk of many games, often times for 35 minutes or more, that it can hang with whoever is across the court. LaChance, Roberson, and Matthew Fisher-Davis have made a career proving that they can win in this program. Lee is already looking like a star as well. The personnel have the potential, but the execution isn’t there.
The common thread in all these late game losses is not hard to spot. Grant Williams might as well have circled it with a yellow highlighter when he put up 37 points, 20 of them coming in the second half. All of his second half field goals came in the paint, and all five of them came from within three feet of the basket.
Williams also shot 13/15 from the line, with 10 of those 13 coming in the second half. Frankly, he was getting every shot he wanted. He was spinning baseline for layups, getting Vanderbilt’s bigs to jump on ball fakes, and simply turning and dropping the ball in the basket. When he couldn’t convert, he would go to the line for two more points. It was the same failure to defend in the post that had plagued Vanderbilt throughout the late game struggles of the past year.
On that January 24th day, the Razorbacks’ comeback was largely due to the 16 free throws they shot over those final six minutes. They made 15 of them.
The bottom line is that late in games, teams are going to try their hardest to get high-percentage looks, and for most teams, those looks are going to come from the paint or from the free throw line. That’s the point where the defense is supposed to tighten the screws, to contest shots, to force lower-percentage looks, and to avoid giving up free points from the line. Vanderbilt has failed to tighten the screws over and over again. Just ask Williams, Metu, Nick King, Desi Rodriguez, and numerous other bigs who have tortured the Commodores this season.
On Tuesday night, Rick Perry knew that his two jobs for the second half were to pound the ball in the paint and to defend the perimeter. Bryce Drew’s job was to prevent his team from getting bullied down low. One of those two coaches did his job, and that’s why Perry’s team won the game. It’s why Vanderbilt hasn’t been able to prevail in the second half of games for a while now. The Commodores aren’t adjusting to stopping easy buckets in the second half, and particularly late in games.
After a loss to Seton Hall earlier this season, NCAA’s Andy Katz asked Bryce Drew how far away his team is from a breakthrough win. Drew answered by saying he thinks his team is right there. He’s right. His team is very close.
But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
And for Vanderbilt, the time is ticking.
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:
Vanderbilt has parted ways with specials teams coordinator/running backs coach Jeff Genyk, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Hired by head coach Derek Mason in 2016, Genyk had previously served as special teams coordinator with current Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig at Wisconsin from 2013 to 2014. In addition, he has coached in some capacity at Northwestern, California and Eastern Michigan.
Genyk was successful with Ralph Webb at the running back position, mentoring Webb on his way to becoming Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher. Webb did not fumble the ball at all during the 2016 season, his first under Genyk.
On special teams, however, it was a different story. In 2017, Vanderbilt finished 12th in the SEC in gross yards per punt, 11th in yards per punt return and last in the conference in field goal percentage. However, they did finish in the top five in the conference in yards per kick return.
In December, sophomore punter Sam Loy announced he was leaving the university and returning home to California to train.
With the departures of Loy, Genyk and graduating kicker Tommy Openshaw, Vanderbilt will be searching for a punter, kicker and a special teams coordinator in the coming months.
As students return to campus for the new semester, the Vanderbilt Commodores will be taking the floor at Memorial Gym for two of their biggest games of the season.
The Tennessee Volunteers visit Nashville on Tuesday night at 8 PM (SEC Network), while John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats come to town on Saturday at 3:00 PM (ESPN).
With two of the best teams in the SEC on the schedule in the same week, this will be a crucial test for a Commodore team struggling with a record of 6-9.
Here are a few storylines to watch as Vanderbilt enters the thick of SEC play.
Big Boy Roberson
Going into this season, rebounding was a serious concern for Vanderbilt with the loss of seven-footer Luke Kornet. Many looked to center Djery Baptiste as the X-factor to step up in his absence.
While Baptiste has improved significantly this season, it’s been senior Jeff Roberson leading the charge on the glass. Despite standing at just 6’6”, he is leading the team in rebounds with 8.1 per game. He’s also sitting in fourth in the SEC in that category.
Roberson has done an excellent job of playing like he has a few more inches of height. His versatility has proven to be an invaluable asset for this team, and he will need to continue to knock down shots, as well as grab boards, if Vanderbilt wants to right the ship.
Shooters Aren’t Shooting
Vanderbilt is dead last in the SEC in points per game.
For a team that prides itself on the ability to shoot the ball effectively, that’s completely abysmal. That’s been the biggest reason for their struggles. If you can’t put the ball in the basket, you can’t win basketball games.
This general shooting struggle can be best attributed to their struggles from beyond the arc. Vanderbilt has attempted the most three-pointers as a team in the SEC, and yet they sit in 12th in three-point field goal percentage at 32.7%. For reference, they shot 37.6% from three-point range last season.
When you are relying on the three-ball to create offense, and those shots aren’t falling, you’re going to struggle.
Is it luck? A slump? It’s certainly not a lack of skill, as players like Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance are notorious for their prowess from long-range.
Assistant sports editor Max Schneider took a deep dive into the team’s shooting struggles back in November.
Whatever the reason is, if Vanderbilt wants to jumpstart the offense, they need to find that touch from beyond the arc. That’s a much easier solution than changing the dynamic of the offense completely.
It’s RPI Season
If Vanderbilt doesn’t start getting some high-quality SEC wins, they’re in danger of missing out on the NCAA Tournament, the NIT and any other postseason tournament.
Right now, Vanderbilt sits at 155 in the RPI rankings. The next-worst SEC team is Ole Miss at 114th overall.
Considering that there’s 68 spots in the NCAA Tournament, plus 32 in the NIT, the Commodores are not even close to the postseason right now. However, their fortunes could change with some quality wins. Tennessee and Kentucky are 10th and 12th in the RPI rankings, respectively, so even just one win this week could be extremely helpful to their postseason resume.
In addition, the Alabama team that they beat last week sits just outside the top 50 at 53rd. If Vanderbilt wants to extend their season deep into March, they’ll need to get some RPI Top 50 wins. Luckily for them, they’ll have 10 more opportunities to beat teams in that top 50 this season.
It’s going to take a big second-half push to get them into any postseason play, but then again, they got to the tournament last year with a similar run.