This easily has to be the deepest, darkest valley yet for the Stallings era. It was the Commodores' fourth straight loss, and their second straight by the appalling score of 66-43 (Vandy lost the previous Saturday to South Carolina by an identical score). Many of the 9,112 partisans vacated their seats during the second half.
Unable to get into any kind of scoring rhythm, and unable to compete with the burly Bulldogs on the backboards, the Commodores fell to 14-12 on the season, 4-9 in the SEC. Mississippi State, now almost a lock for the NCAA tournament, advanced to 20-7, 7-6.
"I'm very sorry for our fans," said a very subdued Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings after a lengthy locker-room meeting. "I thought we played significantly harder than we did against South Carolina. Unfortunately we're so fragile right now and lack so much confidence, that we're just having trouble even making a pass from one player to another.
"It's my fault. I've got to help them get through it. I take responsibility for it.
"I've never been through anything like this before. Believe me, it makes you question what you're doing, and why you're in it. I'm not exactly beaming with confidence myself right now either."
The 6-9, 265-pound Austin, who to these eyes looks ready for the NBA right now, was certainly the star for State, but other Bulldogs had their moments. State's physical frontcourt, led by Austin, Michal Ignerski and Michael Gholar, wasted Vandy on the backboards, 41-19. Derrick Zimmerman, the SEC's assist leader, had 10 points and 5 assists.
For the second straight game, Vanderbilt seemed to sleepwalk through the first half and let the opposition build a big lead. Stone-cold all evening from the floor, the Commodores shot a mere 31% from the floor, and 10% (2-of-20) from 3-point range. The Bulldog defense generally held Vandy to one shot per possession, and forced the Commodores into 18 turnovers.
Stallings had hoped for a more energetic performance from his Commodores, but not a single Commodore was able to come in and provide the needed spark. Vandy scored only 6 points in the game's first 13 minutes and managed only 18 points in the first half. The Bulldogs hit Vandy with a 15-5 run to start the second half, and were off to the races after that.
Brendan Plavich, the SEC's leading 3-point shooter, was held to 8 points on 3-of-5 from the field, 1-of-3 from behind the arc. Matt Freije, Vandy's leading scorer on the season, was held to 6, and Chuck Moore, who had led Vandy in scoring against South Carolina, had 6. Jason Holwerda added 7 points off the bench.
Before the final buzzer sounded, Stallings had cleared his bench and used all 13 players on the roster. Redshirt freshman Martin Schnedlitz scored 2 points in 8 minutes and did battle with the beefy Austin. Sparsely used Darius Coulibaly and Matt Carter played the final minute.
The Memorial Gym crowd had very little to cheer about on this miserably long evening. Near the end of the game, the only suspense was whether Vanderbilt would break 40 points-- which it did on a pair of Coulibaly free throws. Sam Howard added a layup for Vandy's final 2 points.
"Right now we're struggling," said Brendan Plavich, stating the obvious. "We're just trying to get through this little losing streak." Plavich did keep Vanderbilt's 3-point streak alive, but on this night the Commodores, who sometimes live by the 3-pointer, died by it. Plavich and Holwerda were the only Commodores to hit 3-pointers, with one apiece.
The Commodores and Stallings are left wondering what has happened to their offense. This team, which now has scored only 43 points in each of the last two games, had averaged 78 points per game in its first 19 games. And the niggling fears of another February Fade-- a phenomenon that has reared its ugly head the past two seasons under Stallings-- have arisen in the minds of fans once again.
The Commodores' next chance to make amends is against Tennessee in Knoxville Saturday at 3:00. Vanderbilt lost earlier in the season to Tennessee, 67-65 in Nashville. The Volunteers lost Tuesday night to Kentucky in Lexington.