Sweet Victory, Sweeter Surprise

Just when a shortsighted writer felt that Vanderbilt's basketball team wouldn't be able to win a big SEC road game, look what happened Wednesday night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. In 40 minutes of Baton Rouge brilliance, Kevin Stallings and the rest of his coaching staff witnessed a team that has every chance of winning the SEC Tournament.

A thrilling 75-67 win at LSU, in the lair of the outright SEC champions, was the very result that certain people (cough, yours truly, cough) viewed as a dim and distant possibility, something not to be hoped for with too much intensity. Now that the deed has been done, however, it must be said that VU becomes a different kind of force in the world of SEC hoops. Not only could Vandy "pull a Georgia" and win this year's league tournament in Tampa; it would actually be far less surprising if the Dores won four games in four days.

When the lowly, last-place Bulldogs did their thing amidst the tornadoes that terrorized Atlanta in March of 2008, circumstances conspired to create a once-in-a-lifetime scenario graced with emotional surges and psychological dynamics that are virtually impossible to replicate. If Vandy ran the table a week from now, very few observers of a thin and unpredictable league would be shocked on a Georgia-like level. A Commodore crown--and a stolen NCAA Tournament bid--would not stun the country the way Dennis Felton's folks did 12 months ago.

Yes, the SEC is ripe and waiting to be plucked by a basketball bandit. More importantly for Commodore Nation, the VU crew is good enough at the present moment to stage a supreme act of March Madness thievery. Consider what transpired on an exhilarating evening in the Bayou.

There were numerous occasions in this contest when most hardcore hoops fans had to have sat back and said something to the effect of, "Ah, now LSU will make its move and take control."

When the Tigers scored five quick points at the start of the second half to narrow Vandy's 37-26 halftime lead to 37-31, a few voices surely chimed in.

When LSU sniper Marcus Thornton banged in a three to put the Tigers within two--at 56-54--with 8:26 left in regulation, the chorus likely grew louder.

When Thornton tied the game at 60 on an old-fashioned 3-point play with 5:51 remaining, the Bayou Bengals had every reason to think that a bridge had been crossed, and that it would only be a matter of time before the league champions reaffirmed their greatness down the stretch.

But something funny happened... nothing. Nothing, at least, from the LSU side. Only Vandy had the answers when the pressure of the occasion--and the decibel level inside the arena--increased.

There were no foul-fests, such as the sorry spectacle at South Carolina.

There were crisp defensive rotations and repeatedly contested shots, unlike the two losses against Florida.

There was poise and patience at the offensive end, unlike most of VU's SEC road games this season.

Vanderbilt acted like a team that's been to two NCAA Tournaments in a row, even with players unused to the special emotional challenges posed by March basketball. A steely LSU squad that's been pulling close games out of the fire turned into the uncertain outfit the Dores happened to be way back in January. But January is indeed a long time ago when one considers the extent to which this VU squad has grown. Just look at the case of Brad Tinsley.

Yeah, A.J. Ogilvy's vastly improved health can't be overlooked--Stallings said as much in a delightfully candid and self-minimizing postgame press conference--but let it be known that the biggest shots of this contest came not from the Australian post player, but from Tinsley, the freshman from Oregon City, Ore. A trifecta with 4:43 left boosted VU's lead back to four (64-60) after Thornton tied the game just over a minute before. Then, with just 37 seconds left and the Dores clinging to a tenuous 68-66 advantage, Tinsley put the ball in the tin once again from long distance, delivering a dagger that gave VU a 71-66 cushion. Tinsley's heroics were impressive enough in their own right; what made the great, late display of shooting even more laudable, however, was the fact that the baby-faced guard hadn't scored a single point heading into the fateful final five minutes of regulation time. It's one thing for a confident shooter to continue a hot streak in crunch time; it's quite another matter for a young player to block out his offensive struggles and have the courage to even take (let alone make) big shots under pressure. Tinsley could not have lashed LSU two months ago, but now, Mr. Stallings has a backcourt warrior newly armed with late-game ice veins.

Beyond the big shots produced by Tinsley, the real story of this upset came at the defensive end of the floor. With freshmen such as Steve Tchiengang and Jeffery Taylor (not to mention Tinsley) responsible for LSU's meal-ticket scoring combo of Thornton and teammate Tasmin Mitchell, the defensive breakdowns and communication lapses of previous months simply did not occur. Despite the youth of the team he put on the floor, Stallings watched his students harrass the Thornton-Mitchell duo into 10-of-28 shooting. Coach Trent Johnson's team needs at least one of his two studs to break loose in each and every ballgame the Tigers play, so when Vandy contained both members of LSU's two-headed monster, the Dores established a position of control. Given that LSU's interior play represents the Bayou Bengals' main weakness, it's easier to understand how (and why) Ogilvy was liberated and confident enough to rack up 33 points on the road.

Defense, though, told the tale, and if this laser-like focus can make its way to Tampa, the lock-downs--and victories--will continue to emerge for Vanderbilt.

Oh, let's not try to deny that the odds of Vandy making the NCAAs are still small. With that having been said, however, it's just as fair--and just as appropriate--to note that those odds are far better than they were before the Dores dusted off the SEC champions in Baton Rouge.

An extremely young basketball club shows every sign of making a strong run to the NCAA Tournament in 2010. Pardon the VU crew for being so impolite, though; these guys are showing signs that they have the nerve to crash a party and be very rude guests when they travel to Florida in a week.

Get the bandit masks ready. Vanderbilt hoops--now the owner of a win over LSU--has an entirely reasonable chance to complete a basketball equivalent of a smash-and-grab job, stealing an NCAA bid from a luckless set of souls somewhere else in America.

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