But as abruptly and mysteriously as Vandy's shooting accuracy had materialized, it disappeared again-- for an almost nine-minute stretch. South Carolina went on a decisive 22-3 run, and came away with a 68-63 Southeastern Conference victory Wednesday evening at the Colonial Center.
Tarence Kinsey and Renaldo Balkman led South Carolina (11-6, 3-3 SEC) with 15 points each. The Commodores (11-8, 2-4), losers for the fourth straight time, were led by Shan Foster's 19 points, as well as Jason Holwerda's 13 points and 8 rebounds.
"We took a lot of bad shots in that stretch, but the story of the second half was our inability to rebound," Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings summarized. "Our team was light years more competitive than it was on Saturday, but we still had a six or seven-minute stretch there in the second half where we stopped making shots, and we stopped rebounding."
For the game's first 26 minutes, the Gamecocks looked like a team ripe for a beating. The Commodores came out hot from the floor and led by as much as ten points in the first half and 11 in the second.
Then it all went south. Over the wretched nine-minute span, Vandy's shots stopped falling, and every rebound and loose ball went the Gamecocks' way. Stoked by the home crowd, Dave Odom's team turned up the defensive heat and turned an 11-point deficit into an 8-point advantage. The Commodores tried to foul their way back into the game in the final minutes, but could never get closer than two points.
An obviously perturbed Stallings praised his team for coming out with more heart and courage than it had in a loss to Georgia four days earlier, but intimated that the team continues to have "issues." The result, he hinted, could be some wholesale lineup changes in the near future.
"We need to start hitting on more cylinders than we're hitting on," he said. A couple of key guys for some reason just didn't have it tonight. We tried to get them out.
"It's tough, because our margin for error is not such that we can put a guy on the bench that we really depend on. We're just going to have to open this thing up. We've got guys that aren't giving to the team what they can give.
"And it's my fault, because I've allowed them to continue playing, even though you get three or four consecutive games of no productivity. I'm responsible for that. We've got to get some different guys in there and see if we can't get a better energy level and toughness level."
Though Stallings declined to single out individuals, several Commodore regulars struggled notably for the second straight outing. Mario Moore suffered through a 2-of-10 night from the field, while Dawid Przybyszewski was held scoreless for the second straight game. Julian Terrell had just two points and three rebounds, and played only 12 minutes.
Meanwhile freshman Alan Metcalfe saw the most significant playing time of his short career with 14 minutes. The sparingly-used post man from England was in the lineup for the Commodores' ill-fated attempt to retake the lead down the stretch, and contributed a significant blocked shot and basket.
Stallings inserted Corey Smith into the starting lineup (for Terrell) for the first time since the Oregon game Dec. 4, and early on it looked like a brilliant move. Out of the chute, Smith sank three straight 3-pointers to guide Vandy to an early 11-5 lead. But he would go scoreless for the rest of the game.
South Carolina tied the game at 13-13, before Alex Gordon erupted for a flurry of four first-half treys. A spirited Vandy team, playing with obvious emotion and sense of urgency, led 36-30 at the break largely due to eight 3-pointers on 21 attempts.
Vanderbilt would stretch the lead to 51-40 before going into its nine-minute-long funk. The Commodores still had a chance to come back in the final minutes, but were unable to pull rebounds at critical times. A couple of missed front-ends of one-and-ones from the free throw line would also help seal Vandy's undoing.
"We came in here with the mentality that we were going to play fearlessly, and with a lot of courage," said Jason Holwerda. "We took some bad shots, and we hurried a lot of shots. It just wasn't going our way for some reason. [The dry spell] was probably the breaking point in the game."
The perplexing Commodores now return to Nashville for a series of four home games, starting Saturday with a 3 pm (CT), non-televised contest against Ole Miss.
"We're just kind of sick of losing right now," said Holwerda. "We need to put this behind us, go back home and get ready to win some games."