Good Enough: VU wobbles late, holds off MSU
Those who like to think of themselves as the sunshine pumpers, the cartoon angels peering over the shoulders of the VU crew, will look at Wednesday night's close shave against Mississippi State and say that the Dores have experienced a teachable moment, a classic case study in how NOT to manage the endgame phase of a contest they dominated for the first 36 minutes but then almost gave away in the last four minutes of regulation. Positive people will stress that despite getting rattled at crunch time and coughing up turnovers while also missing layups as well, the Dores remained tied for first in the SEC East and very likely shrank the SEC West's pool of NCAA Tournament contenders to one team (Ole Miss).
On the other side of the divide linger the stern and always-concerned worriers, the devil's advocates who – mindful of past failures in various seasons over many years – find it hard to breathe too easily or smile too readily after a very big fish almost got away. For this crowd, the knowledge of another SEC victory just isn't enough to wipe away the sense that this frail and faltering finish could spell trouble for Kevin Stallings's ballclub in a pressure-cooker tournament situation, be it in the SEC extravaganza or (much worse) in the Big Dance, which VU is almost certain to make at this point.
All will depend on how Stallings and his staff – who are, by the way, making good on the $100,000 investment the head coach made in the offseason – rally and massage their roster in the next week or so. It's incredibly important that Vandy gain satisfaction from this win while also developing a little more steel in the crucible that is known as endgame basketball.
This contest at Memorial Gym was not a monument to consistency. What this game did show, though, is that the Dores have a bunch of very confident perimeter shooters who can bring the hammer down on the opposition in short order. At various points during this contest, a modestly close scoreline turned into a comfy Vanderbilt cushion because a Commodore executed a "release, rotation, SPLASH!" maneuver. Cornelius and the other original sea-faring Vanderbilts might not have understood that expression, but current generations of diehard Dores can easily associate that terminology with the act of knocking down a long-distance dagger. Vandy's guards and wings turned that trick on many occasions against the visiting Bulldogs from Starkville, Miss.
With MSU down by only two at 33-31, and with just under 90 seconds remaining in the first half, Jermaine Beal drained a 3-pointer to give VU some breathing room before halftime.
When the Bulldogs trailed by eight just two minutes into the second half, teammate Brad Tinsley joined Beal's 3-point parade. Both Vandy guards banged in treys to abruptly extend VU's lead to 48-34 with 17:38 remaining. The brief flurry showed how devastating the long ball can be. It also served as a reminder that while football absolutely demands superior brawn and virile prowess in repeated physical confrontations, basketball can be won with finesse. North Carolina – in last year's national title run – certainly owned some strong studs within 10 feet of the basket, but the Tar Heels wouldn't have won the whole ball of wax if they didn't have Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson around to drain a big boatload of triples. The fact of the matter is that Vandy has carved out an identity as a team that is dangerous precisely because it has the ability to shoot opponents out of the building if defenses don't press them on the perimeter.
To build on that last point, VU thrived for most of the evening in Nashville precisely because the Dores found a good inside-outside mix. On the sequences when center A.J. Ogilvy was limited by the presence of Mississippi State star Jarvis Varnado, VU went to the 3-point arc to get points. But when MSU extended its defense, the Dores exhibited superb spacing in their halfcourt sets and were able to get Ogilvy good looks. The Australian pivot's 16-point, 7-rebound outing represented a fine effort when one considers the defensive quality of the man who guarded him.
Yes, Mr. Varnado swatted 9 shots and swallowed up 14 boards, but Ogilvy also crashed the offensive glass, snaring 5 offensive rebounds compared to Varnado's haul of 6. Precisely because VU's triumvirate of Beal, Tinsley and John Jenkins (who finished a combined 6 of 10 from 3-point range and demonstrated terrific shot selection) owned a huge edge against Mississippi State's wings, Ogilvy's performance stood out to an even greater degree. His ability to play Varnado to a relative standoff (one could quibble about the details, and perhaps Varnado earned a slight edge, but it was close enough to question) made Ogilvy a key figure in this contest. By cancelling out MSU's best player on the floor, Ogilvy allowed his teammates in the backcourt to carry VU to victory. The blended style and superior balance demonstrated by the Dores was so pronounced that they carried a commanding 71-57 lead into the final four minutes of play.
Then came the wobbly stretch that almost sabotaged a generally strong performance.
Vanderbilt missed four layups in the final four minutes, a testament not just to Varnado's disruptive presence in the paint for Mississippi State, but to an increasing sense of panic that seemed to hijack VU's mindset in an erratic endgame sequence. A feeling of fear grew as the clock ticked down and the Bulldogs made their final, furious charge to the finish line. Tinsley missed a pair of free throws. Ogilvy and Beal both committed turnovers. With just under three minutes left and VU still up by eight points at 73-65, the Dores twice shot the ball with at least 28 seconds on the shot clock, a terrible lapse under those time-and-score circumstances.
Speaking of time-and-score situations, Vanderbilt lost track of basic math at the defensive end in the final minutes, as the one unallowable occurrence – a made 3-pointer by the Bulldogs – twice burned Stallings's students. The first trey, by MSU's Barry Stewart at the 2:07 mark, made the score 73-68, Vandy. Then, with VU leading by a 73-69 margin, Bulldog bomber Dee Bost tossed in a triple to make the score 73-72 with 28 seconds to go. The shot sent waves of anxiety rippling through the Memorial Gym crowd of 14,316, and it made the possibility of a Bulldog comeback entirely realistic.
Fortunately, though, MSU took its eye off the ball – and the situation – just as Vanderbilt had done in the previous few minutes. Coach Rick Stansbury's club took 22 seconds to foul and send VU to the line, and when John Jenkins nailed two foul shots with just six seconds left, the visitors from the Magnolia State had limited options. When Bost missed a three with two seconds left, an offensive rebound and a subsequent pair of free throw attempts from Romero Osby did nothing to help MSU's cause. Osby had to miss the second free throw and get one of the craziest caroms in college basketball history, and when that didn't happen, Vandy's survival act was complete.
The VU crew knows that four bad minutes almost undid 36 solid ones. Going forward, the Commodores can't allow their confidence to be shaken, but in the same breath, they need to soberly retrieve many lessons that need to be applied in future weeks. Endgame basketball tests the nerves and the on-court IQ of a tournament-worthy team. If Vandy can pass subsequent tests in this SEC campaign, Kevin Stallings will be able to look back on this game and remember it as a positive point in his team's development.
It would be a shame if this late-game stumble shattered what has been – until now – a growing sense of confidence in a harmonious and substantially mature locker room.
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