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State of the ‘Dores: Vice Chancellor David Williams on Vanderbilt Athletics in 2018

Welcome to State of the ‘Dores, a new series from the Vanderbilt Hustler sports staff.

Vanderbilt Athletics have never been stronger on the field, but with that success have come questions about the infrastructure and support systems surrounding Athletics. 

This series will try to delve into the heart of the issues at hand, find out where Vanderbilt has been successful and unsuccessful, explain why things are happening they way they are and how the Athletic Department can evolve into the future. 

Our series begins with part one of a candid Q&A with Vice Chancellor David Williams. Last Monday, I sat down with Williams to discuss the state of Vanderbilt Athletics and his vision for the department. 

Here is part one of that interview. Stay tuned for part two coming soon. 

Cutler Klein: 2017 was overall a pretty successful year for Vanderbilt Athletics. What are your thoughts on the calendar year that has just passed?

David Williams: Well, it’s an interesting constraint because we play in such a tough conference. If you can do well in your conference, you probably have done well. We didn’t have a bad year, we ended up with four conference championships, one of them wasn’t the SEC, our bowling team bowls in the Southland conference. We won that conference for the second consecutive year. We won four conferences and we had four teams that basically ended up in the top 10 in the nation, which is really an accomplishment.

Yeah, I think overall it was a good year. We always want more. I think it was a surprise for some that our Men’s Basketball team once again made it back to the tournament and we kind of thought we’d go a little further, as they were playing at the end.

Football made it into a bowl game, and that was only the eighth bowl game Vanderbilt’s been in. We would have liked to have done better in that bowl game, but overall I thought the year was good.

And then we had some emerging things. I think probably the one that really stands out is you look at how Women’s Tennis maintained being one of the top the programs in the year, how Men’s Golf has emerged to be one of the top programs. And then you’re looking at the emerging of our Women’s Soccer, which we really saw come through this year.

CK: Looking at Men’s Basketball, one of the big developments this year was actually what’s going to happen in 2018 with Darius Garland, Simi Shittu and possibly Romeo Langford. When you brought in Bryce Drew to be the Men’s Basketball coach, did you think that he would be able to pull off what’s probably going to be a top-five, possibly even #1 recruiting class in one of his first few years?

DW: I don’t think anybody knew it would be that quick. I mean, I think that we certainly thought that he would have that ability. He certainly was a good recruiter at Valpo. When you start to think about those sort of things, he had all of the requirements in there. A lot of the kids are interested in talking to somebody who’s played in the league. Even now, it’s amazing that some of the young people still say “I remember The Shot. I read about it, I saw The Shot.”

So, it’s that function of how do you get in the door? How do you convince them? What style of play do you have? I think we saw that in the first year, that it was going to be upscale. These kids are going to fight. He’s surrounded himself with a great staff. Let me put it this way: I was not going to be surprised that we were going to have a top-five class. I didn’t think it would be in the second year.

CK: Football was one win from a bowl game this year. Obviously, not where you want it to be given the bowl game last year. Things are already looking up for next year, you have a recruiting class that’s much better than the last one. Do you still have full confidence in Derek Mason and what he can do to change things up a little bit?

DW: Yeah, and I think what Derek has been going through is sort of what I would call, I mean, when you think of college as a student, you think of it as a four-year process. I think what people have to understand and coaches have to understand that. I think Derek now is understanding what the real difference is between having an all freshman team, or predominantly freshman team and a predominantly senior team. Right off the bat, one would think “Ah, the Senior team, that’s the one.”

Well, maybe, if you do it a certain way. I think he’s now got his full scale of “Ok, I’ve had the teams that were very very young, very very old if you like it four years. Where is that sweet spot?” So, yeah, and I think he has really increased the recruiting. I think the other part that’s been so good is the real development from an offensive point of view. We’ve got a guy in there that understands offenses, that basically can run an offense. I think with Shurmur we’ve got a great quarterback who basically can manage a game. I think the best is still to come.

David Williams as the Florida Gators defeated Vanderbilt 13-6 October 1, 2016 at Vanderbilt Stadium. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

CK: Looking at the department as a whole, these last few years, athletics has never been better. Football is going to bowl games, more NCAA Tournament appearances, even in sports like Tennis and Men’s Golf they’re winning. Do you feel like, in your tenure here at Vanderbilt, that the standard has been elevated for Vanderbilt Athletics?

DW: Yeah, I think we’ve sort of taken it to a point. I think you’ve got to be careful with that because I really do believe that’s a tricky sort of thing. To some degree, the hardest part is to stay there than to get there. I think in some cases we had some low-hanging fruit in the sense that, I was telling somebody the other day that when I first came here, the general chant at some games I would go to was “That’s okay, you’ll work for us one day.” So, it really was a mindset of how you change a culture, how you change expectations.

The interesting piece of that is we have created a higher expectation now, and that’s what you want. But, that means that you have to take your game up higher. I think the real test of what we’ve done is can we maintain it and can we build on it? It’s nice to think that while this is a better time than yesterday was, you’ve really got to think about what tomorrow’s going to be, because the expectation, not only from the fanbase and the students and the faculty and the staff, but from us, is much higher. It’s kind of interesting, when you never win a national championship, winning one is real exciting. After you’ve won one, not winning one the next year doesn’t feel good.

CK: Baseball has a beautiful new facility. You mentioned back in October through the Stadium debacle that those are the kinds of projects you wanted to prioritize in terms of capital fundraising. Is that something you’re eyeing for football or basketball or other sports?

DW: Yeah, and a couple of things we’re thinking about before we did baseball, we did a lot for the golf teams out at the course. I would say that the two things that come to mind right off the bat is that we have a great tennis program and of course our Women’s Tennis team has won the championship, came close to winning another one. We’ll have a real good team coming back. One of the things that we’re starting to get closed out on is being able to host the big games.

We’ve never hosted the NCAA Finals here. So, one of the thoughts of it is what would it take, and really it would take is actually developing two more outdoor courts. That’s something to look at.

I would say the thing that really jumps at you, though, was Memorial. I would say that, really what I’ve been thinking about and have some meetings coming up this week, is how do we keep the magic of Memorial, but actually make it a better place? Memorial will be something that I think we will be looking at.

Jan 18, 2013: Derek Mason is introduced as Vanderbilt’s head coach by Athletics Director David Williams and Chancellor Nick Zeppos. Photo by Bosley Jarrett

CK: You mentioned back then that when you get the funding for these kinds of things that it doesn’t come from the university. What is the fundraising process for something like the baseball facility and for these other things?

DW: Generally what you do is your sort of get a project and you say “Okay, what are all the things you want?” If it’s for a sport, the coach and the kids are asked “What do you guys want? What do you need?” Sort of maybe a 1-10 in that project. Then you have to say “Okay, let’s attach a price tag to that.” Okay, that’s $18 million. What we then do is we talk to our fundraising people and ask how much of that do you think you can raise? Well, we always say if it’s $18 million then raise $18 million. They might come back and say they can raise $15 million. Then you have to sit down and say two things: One, if there’s a $3 million difference, do you reduce the project down to that or can you see an ability to pay for that $3 million through your budget over the number of years?

Then you have to look at if that $15 million or $18 million whatever it is is coming in, it’s going to come in over 3-4 years, so you’ve got to basically make sure you can carry that load. Then you go out on the market. In baseball, that’s a good project because we raised every penny of it. We had to supplement for timing, but we never had to supplement our budget into it. We’ll continue to do that.

I think you’ll see even moreso this, because we’re getting ready to be right into a campaign. The university campaign, what will be our part of it? What part of our campaign piece will be to facilities? A good portion of our campaign will be centered around endowment. I think that if you really want to look at Vanderbilt Athletics long-term, as I tell my staff, if you’re one of the people like me that you want Vanderbilt Athletics to always be here and always get better. So you want to say 20 years from now, I’d like to turn on the TV and know that athletics is real good.

The best way to ensure that is to raise money for endowments. If we get to a point, and quite honestly this is the trick that Stanford used years ago, if we can get to the point where all of the athletic scholarships are endowed, then you’re going to have athletics in real good shape. That’s going to be anywhere from $12-$18 million dollars a year that you have to do other things.

CK: That capital campaign, is that a general university endeavor or is that something you guys are embarking on?

DW: We’re always raising money, but I think what you’ll see is the university, it’s getting to be about time that the university will start to think about when should be the next campaign. When you have that next campaign, every part of the university sort of is in there. You ramp up for it. Fundraising is something you do all of the time in athletics, but when you have a campaign, you kind of have a special focus because it’s the whole university.

CK: In terms of the support you get from the university, if it’s not going to capital projects, what do they help you guys out with?

DW: I think they help us a lot. The fact of the matter, when you think of fundraising, the fundraising staff that we have is actually a function of the development staff. What we call the National Commodore Club are really part of the fundraising thing. The university helps us a lot with actually making sure that, the truth of the matter is I mean this is an intangible thing. You talk about Bryce and you talk about the great recruiting class he had, talk about Derek and his recruiting class, I don’t think a lot of people understand how much of that is a function of what Vanderbilt is.

What we’re seeing is more and more young people, I was asking some student athletes just yesterday “Why did you come here?” I was talking to a potential recruit in football, a four-star kid, who we’re recruiting because we still have some more scholarships on signing day. He told me it’s the mixture of academics and athletics. I think your starting see a twist where many of these kids are interested in the academics too. I think Vanderbilt itself is a plus, and that hasn’t always been the case. When I first came here, I remember coaches telling me “Do you understand that other coaches are recruiting against us by basically telling kids ‘You know, at Vanderbilt, you may have to go to class.'”

If you wanted to go to college just to play sports and not go to class, that would be a turn off. But these kids want to come to school and get a great education. Then the university from top-to-bottom is very supportive of what we’re trying to do. So, just the support you get from the other areas of the university, from finance, from the legal staff that you can pick up the phone. It’s not an animosity, it’s not an us vs. them. I think they enjoy what we’re trying to do and we certainly get 110% support from everybody around here.

Stay tuned for part two, in which Williams discusses Athletics’ role in the future of the school and his vision for the new Center for Sports and Society. 

Three thoughts: Lee, LaChance power Commodores past LSU

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.

Vanderbilt snaps losing skid with 77-71 victory over LSU

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.

Blessing Ejiofor making tough transition from Nigeria to Nashville

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.

Commodores back LaChance after crunch-time misses in loss to Kentucky

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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.

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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.”

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

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.

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

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.

Photo by Ziyi Liu.

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.

Vanderbilt falls to 0-4 in SEC play with loss to Missouri

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.

Second-half struggles continuing to bite Commodores

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.

Saben Lee provides a spark, Fisher-Davis rolling off the bench for Vanderbilt

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.

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. 

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