House Money: Vandy Tops Ole Miss, 82-78
As a result, they'll be playing with house money when they take the court on Saturday against the colossus from Kentucky.
Vanderbilt defeated Ole Miss, 82-78, on Thursday night in Oxford. The four-point win at Tad Smith Coliseum will give the Commodores a shot at a share of the SEC regular season championship, but more importantly (yes, more importantly!), it sends a very positive message to an already-upbeat locker room. A sweat-filled but successful conquest of Andy Kennedy's Rebels indicates that coach Kevin Stallings has gotten through to his roster.
This is the stuff deep NCAA Tournament runs are made of.
In order to appreciate the wisdom that VU is only beginning to find within itself, consider the following: Intelligence has its place in any athletic endeavor, and the VU crew certainly possesses that quality in abundance, but wisdom speaks to something more profound in the human condition. Being wise isn't the result of knowing formulas, systems or concepts; it's the ability to handle knowledge and apply it with a maximum of effect in various life situations.
Stallings has coaxed many fine performances from his basketball team this season, and there can be no doubt that Vandy has grown up a great deal over the past 12 months. The aches and pains of 2009 have borne fruit in 2010; an accumulation of experiences – some of them positive but many of them negative – has lifted the Dores from the postseason outhouse to this year's NCAA Tournament penthouse. The only drama on Selection Sunday will be connected to the draw this team receives. (Seeding is overrated; opponents and game locations matter the most.)
Yet, for all that Vanderbilt basketball has achieved so far, it's hard to recall an outing in which the Commodores exhibited the wisdom of a team that knows how to carry itself through a full season. Yes, VU swept Tennessee with pronounced inside power, and yes, the Dores showed a lot of composure at the beginning of their SEC slate by winning a nail-biter at Alabama. It's true that Vandy has persevered throughout the season – an unintelligent team wouldn't have been able to travel as far as this team has. However, wisdom has still been elusive for Stallings's students.
Think that claim lacks merit? Well, what about the losses to Illinois and Western Kentucky earlier in the season?
What about the look-ahead loss at Georgia a few days before Tennessee came to Memorial Gym?
What about the late-game collapse against Mississippi State which fortunately didn't turn into a loss?
What about the sleepy showing against LSU in another game VU didn't take very seriously?
This much is obvious: Even in moments of victory, Vandy hasn't been wise in 2010. Intelligent enough to execute at a certain level? Yes, but not wise. Wisdom represents a higher standard and a more elevated way of being. Scraping by LSU and losing at Georgia do not belong to the province of the wise.
Ah, but now – after strolling into Oxford and upending Mississippi – the presence of true wisdom has entered Vandy's huddle, at least for the moment.
The orchestrator of this excellent effort against the Rebels felt that something else had re-entered the Commodores' locker room as well: "We've been talking about getting our road swagger back and we got that tonight," Stallings said.
VU's coach liked the aggressiveness of his team, which is a sign of intelligence, but he also admired the mindset which laid the foundation for this magnificent win in the Magnolia State.
By drawing Ole Miss on the schedule, Vandy was taking on a classic bubble team. The Rebels had everything to play for on Thursday night, and they needed to make a strong statement to the Division I Men's Basketball Committee about their at-large candidacy for the NCAA Tournament. As much as VU wanted this contest, Ole Miss needed it more.
The other outstanding feature of this game was that it preceded the Kentucky clash by just two days. A normal week usually involves a Wednesday SEC game, but Dores-Rebels managed to make its way onto the Thursday slate. The temptation to look past Ole Miss was even stronger than the lure of overlooking Georgia in favor of Tennessee. Something similar could be said about the difficulty of focusing on LSU this past Saturday, just a few days before this week's marquee matchups.
Let's sum things up, then: Vandy was playing on the road against a talented team that needed the game more. The Dores, in 2010, had already struggled in their attempts to focus on a given gameday foe. This meant that with Kentucky looming on Saturday, a Thursday throwdown at Smith Coliseum had the word "trap game" written all over it. Ole Miss would get lost in the shuffle, just 48 hours before the big battle against Big Blue on Saturday evening.
An intelligent Vandy team would execute with some degree of success, but the preponderance of distractions – according to this game's most likely scripted narrative - would prevent the unwise Commodores from giving Ole Miss enough respect on the road.
Or at least, that's what some people thought.
On this night, there would be no more looking ahead. On this occasion, Ole Miss would gain VU's complete attention. On this particular piece of hardwood, the anticipation of a big-name opponent from Lexington would not distract the Dores in Oxford.
On this night, Vanderbilt basketball basically decided to grow up.
Forget the fact that it took 15 minutes and 25 seconds for someone other than A.J. Ogilvy or Jeffery Taylor to score. Forget the fact that Ole Miss had nine different players score at least one point before a third Commodore cracked the scoring column. Vanderbilt absorbed an 11-point deficit in the early stages of competition and, instead of folding like a cheap tent, steadily clawed its way back into contention despite poor performances in the backcourt. While Ogilvy and Taylor carried VU for as long as they possibly could, everyone wearing black warm-up suits on that visiting bench knew that the rest of the roster would need to answer the bell.
Midway through the second half, that's exactly what happened on this suddenly wise team, which was intent on banishing the ghosts unleashed by the Georgia loss and the scare versus LSU.
With Vandy trailing 53-49 at the 9:58 mark of regulation, the supporting cast decided to intervene. Naturally, VU's role players picked the perfect time to make their mark on this contest. Jermaine Beal, Brad Tinsley, Festus Ezeli, and John Jenkins produced 16 of VU's next 20 points to give the good guys a 69-65 edge with 2:52 remaining. It's entirely correct that Ogilvy put this game away with six made foul shots in six attempts over the final 2:06 of regulation, but without a timely infusion of offense from other sources, the Dores wouldn't have downed the Rebels and sent Ole Miss careening toward the NIT.
That's wisdom, ladies and gentlemen. That's the resourceful response which hasn't existed for VU in a mentally-challenging road game.
So much of this Ole Miss encounter suggested that Vandy wouldn't be prepared enough or hungry enough to wait for Kentucky and take care of business against the Rebels. The backstory to this battle hinted at a letdown in the hours before John Calipari's kids invaded Memorial Gym for a nationally-televised Saturday showcase. That letdown, however, never came.
So what if Ole Miss needed this game more? So what if the Rebels stood to benefit from another Vandy look-ahead? The Commodores kept their poise and found their focus. They didn't daydream about Saturday or get caught up in the hype. They won the kind of game that's worthy of their talents.
Now, only now, can VU worry about Kentucky, in a game where all the pressure will fall on the Wildcats' shoulders.
Vanderbilt – the new and wise version – can simply let it fly this weekend. Playing with house money – after being adult enough to take care of business on the road – is a very nice feeling for this basketball program to have.
It's also a new feeling that hopefully won't go away over the next seven weeks.
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