Lowery: "the unthinkable happened"

The Vanderbilt Commodores fell to 2-2 in SEC play, losing to South Carolina in a heartbreaking overtime thriller. Throughout the contest, Vanderbilt appeared to slightly outplay South Carolina in many aspects of the game. However, South Carolina was able to exploit Vanderbilt's weaknesses time and time again, as they overcame two double-digit Commodore leads on the way to their first SEC victory of the season.

Before things went sour for the ‘Dores, the night seemed to go as the home team had planned. During the first half, Vanderbilt controlled the pace and played stifling defense, holding the Gamecocks to 17 first half points. Mario Moore came alive offensively for the Commodores, booking 9 first half points, including two very high-percentage shots from backdoor cuts. The halftime score was 28-17, and all indications were that the Gamecocks were ready to wilt. Surely Vanderbilt would have no trouble holding a double-digit lead against a team winless in the SEC, right?

Every one of VandyMania's "keys to the game" indicated that Vanderbilt was doing well. The Commodores started off on the right foot, controlling the game from the opening tipoff through the first 20 minutes of play. South Carolina's field goal percentages was held under 40% through the first half. Carolina forward Renaldo Balkman had no easy baskets – in fact, he had no points at all in the first half (and the entire game). Vanderbilt's defense seemed to be wearing away at Carolina's confidence. Vanderbilt outrebounded the Gamecocks, and the ‘Dores also took good care of the basketball. Keying off of the energy of Mario Moore, Dan Cage, and DeMarre Carroll, the team seemed to hustle on every first-half play. The bright side to this game for the Commodores came in the first half – Vanderbilt has finally learned how to start off strong in games they expect to win.

That's roughly where the good news ends for Commodore fans. In the words of Coach Kevin Stallings, "The team thought we had it won at halftime. I guess that's my fault… this game was lost at the beginning of the second half." South Carolina came out of the locker room with spring in their step, and they picked up the pace of the game significantly, while Vanderbilt seemed lackadaisical. The Gamecocks scored 18 points in the first 4 minutes of the second half – more than they scored in the entire first half. Point guard Tre Kelley was the key to South Carolina's comeback, as he scored 29 points on the night – the vast majority in the second half.

Coach Stallings later shared his laundry list of the Commodores' woes in the second half: "You have to execute, you have to make free throws, you have to take care of the ball, you have to make lay-ups, and you have got to defend." Most observers would agree that the Commodores did each of those things poorly for most of the second half – and that is a long list of problems.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's tenacity was paying off. Vanderbilt's double-digit lead had become a small S.C. edge. "During halftime I felt good about this game," said South Carolina's Tre Kelley, "none of the guys thought we couldn't come back. All we needed was a crack in the door."

However, Vanderbilt got on a hot shooting streak, making three-pointers on three consecutive possessions to create a 49-42 Vanderbilt lead. This eventually grew into yet another 11 point lead for Vanderbilt, at 57-46. However, from then until well into overtime – for over seven minutes of gametime – Vanderbilt would score just two points.

South Carolina slowly climbed into striking distance on the backs of Tre Kelley and Dwayne Day. Mario Moore, who had earlier sustained an indeterminate injury to his ankle while guarding Day, was forced to come back into the game on his injured ankle to help Vanderbilt break out of South Carolina's tenacious pressing defense. Controversy erupted near the one-minute mark, as Shan Foster appeared to be repetitively hacked on the back and arms while holding the ball. The nearest official called a jump-ball, but South Carolina fouled Vanderbilt only a few seconds later.

Indeed, South Carolina sent DeMarre Carroll, Shan Foster, and Alex Gordon to the freethrow line in the last minute of regulation. The Commodores, to that point in the game, had been perfect from the free throw line. Alas, Vandy was 0-for-4 in the final minute of play. Even with this nearly complete collapse by Vanderbilt, only a made 3-pointer by starting Gamecock center Brandon Wallace – a man who rarely shoots the three-ball – propelled the game into overtime. Even South Carolina's Coach Odom, elated after his team's victory, winced a bit at the thought of his big man taking that particular shot. "It's probably not what I would have drawn up," said Odom, "but we tell our players that if you're open and you're in rhythm, shoot it."

In over time, neither team seemed to be in a scoring rhythm, and the score was still tied as the overtime gameclock ticked under three minutes. South Carolina hit a three point shot around the 2:00 mark, and two Vanderbilt attempts barely rimmed out. However, Vanderbilt's defense seemed to have returned, and a two-point bucket by Shan Foster (his only 2 point FG of the night) left Vanderbilt within one point with 32 seconds to go.

Then the unthinkable happened yet again. As one referee was within a fraction of a second of calling a five second violation on South Carolina's inbounds play, another referee called an off-the-ball foul very close to the Vanderbilt bench, sending South Carolina's best free-throw shooter to the line. Kevin Stallings appeared more enraged than he had seemed all season long, but had no comment after the game on that call. Two made freethrows stretched the Carolina lead to three points. Mario Moore sunk an NBA-range three pointer with 16 seconds to go, allowing Vanderbilt to momentarily tie the game before South Carolina's hero, Kelley, drove nearly uncontested into the lane to hit the game-winning layup with less than four seconds remaining in the game. Mario threw up another half-court prayer for the Commodores, reminiscent of the Oregon miracle, but it was not to be. South Carolina won, 66-64.

Dave Odom explained the decisions that resulted in the game winning shot: "We had said two or three times during the last timeout that with that small lineup in there, we knew they could not go smaller than that and that was going to give us a definite quickness advantage at the half-court level… (Kelley) found a hole, and he's a good lay-up shooter when he's got a run at it."

The 12,433 Vanderbilt faithful left Memorial stunned. An 11 point lead late in the second half had evaporated into a heartbreaking loss – a loss that Coach Stallings and Mario Moore both described as a "gift" to the Gamecocks. Vanderbilt did not seem to know how to play with a lead, and the intense physicality of the game seemed to force the Commodores out of their comfort zone. However, when the game came down to the end, Vanderbilt didn't lose because of psychology, physicality, or poor preparation. They lost because of the reasons enumerated by Stallings after the game: sloppy execution, errant free-throws, careless turnovers, missed layups, and poor defense. As Stallings said, "This was our own undoing."

DeMarre Carroll said on Monday that the team was still confident after the loss at Arkansas – "We are a great team. Great teams might fall, but they always get back up." The Commodores have another chance to recover and end their streak of two consecutive losses when the Mississippi State Bulldogs come to Nashville on Saturday. The afternoon game will be televised on CBS, giving Vanderbilt a chance to shine on national television. The SEC season has arrived, and even the youngest Commodores now realize that there is no such thing as an easy win in this conference.

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