Kevin Stallings' Commodores rolled into the "Big Easy" on a 5-game winning streak, hoping for an "easy" win against Tulane, a team picked near the bottom of Conference USA.
But nothing, it seems, is going to come easy this year for this team.
Instead, Vandy was ambushed by a Green Wave team that played more like a Tidal Wave on this night. Tulane scored inside, outside and all around the Commodores, at times making a mockery of Vanderbilt's interior defense, and pulled away in the second half for an 87-77 win at New Orleans Arena.
Tulane, a team shooting 48% on the year, warmed up to shoot 66% from the floor, 76% in the first half. The Commodores also came out in the first half with a hot start, hitting 8 of their first 11 shots from the floor-- but Vandy cooled off in the second half, and Tulane never did.
Time and again the Green Wave rear-screened Vanderbilt's big men to create easy layups. They combined a quick, powerful inside-outside game with some suffocating pressure on the defensive end to outscore Vandy 41-30 in the second half, after trailing by a point at halftime.
Coach Stallings was not pleased at all with the defensive effort. "That was the worst defensive game any team of mine has EVER played," said Stallings in the postgame. "It's my responsibility, and it's my job to get it fixed.
"The way we played defense was an embarrassment. It should be an embarrassment to our players... I know it was to our coaches."
Stallings wasn't finished. "Unfortunately we don't guard," he ranted. "We score 47 points in the first half, we should have a big lead. Then they decided to turn up the heat defensively in the second half. We didn't guard... and we lost." Vanderbilt lost its shooting touch in the second half, shooting only 33% in the half, 43% for the game.
Interestingly, Shawn Finney's team, known for its Kentucky-like full-court pressing, abandoned the press quickly after the first 6 minutes, during which the Commodores were easily breaking the press and converting 3's in the transition game. Instead, the Wave went to a very effective, aggressive half-court defense, and the Commodores seemed to lose their composure from that point on.
Tulane's pair of guards, Waitari Marsh and Brandon Spann, consistently out-quicked Vandy, which played without starter Russell Lakey except for 4 minutes in the first half. Marsh not only scored a career-high 23 points, but also hurt Vandy by consistently finding Tulane's big men for wide open shots along the blocks. Three other Tulane players were in double figures: 6-foot-8, 230-pound Brandon Brown went 9-for-10 to finish with 20 points; Nick Sinville hit for 18 on eight-of-11 shooting; and Spann added 16.
Matt Freije led the Commodores in scoring with 22 points. "We just got rattled," said Freije. "There's nothing else I can say. They played good halfcourt defense and just got us rattled." Brendan Plavich added 16 points; Chuck Moore had 12, Scott Hundley had 11, and Brian Thornton had 6.
Vanderbilt was narrowly out-rebounded by the Green Wave, 32-30.
The first half was a torrid display of offensive basketball. Vandy easily broke Tulane's zone press early and hit 11 of its first 15 shots-- 7 of those from 3-point range-- and jumped out to a 29-19 lead. But the Commodores cooled off, and when they began having difficulty defending Tulane's inside game-- 6-5 Waitari Marsh in particular-- the lead quickly closed. The Green Wave shot an astonishing 19-of-25 from the field (76%) in the first half.
Late in the first half, after a Brendan Plavich layup, Vandy thought it would take a 47-43 lead to the locker room at halftime. But Marcus Kinzer (a Nashville native from Glencliff High School) hit a desperation 35-footer at the buzzer to cut Vandy's halftime lead to 47-46.
In the second half Tulane took the lead at 55-54 with about 16 minutes left, and never trailed again. A shot by Nick Sinville put the Wave up 61-54, but Vandy battled back to cut the lead to 70-68 on two Freije free throws with about 5 minutes left. Tulane then proceeded to outscore Vandy 17-9. The Commodores missed a couple of big free throws down the stretch.
It was a truly frustrating loss, in more ways than one. Russell Lakey did not return in the second half after re-injuring his ailing foot in the first. There's little question a healthy Lakey would have made a big difference in defending Marsh and Spann.
The Commodores (7-3) now have a 10-day break before returning to face American University at home on Thursday, Dec. 20. The Commodores also have home games against East Tennesse State and Morehead State before conference play begins.Jan. 5 against Georgia.
Tulane advanced to 6-1, with the only loss coming at the hands of No. 6 Florida.