The most encouraging thing from the game was Vanderbilt's ability to close out the game.
With five minutes to play, John Jenkins knocked down a jumper to put Vanderbilt ahead 61-60. The 'Dores would never trail again. In that final stretch run, the team hit 17-for-20 free throws and committed zero turnovers against Mississippi's full-court press. It was a clinic on how to win in the NCAA tournament. Teams that get behind will try every way possible to extend the length of games. If Vandy misses a couple more free throws, they lose. The first 35 minutes may have had a sloppy feel to it, but the final five minutes were brilliant on the offensive side.
Coach Kevin Stallings was very pleased. "We talked about trying to get the swagger back that we had earlier in the conference season on the road, and our guys certainly did that," Stallings said. "We really gutted this one out, and we did that without some of our key guys having great nights."
Basically, the Ole Miss game got everybody excited for one of the worst shooting performances I have ever seen in person. Not just from Vandy, but from Kentucky also. The teams combined to go 5-for-36 from behind the arc. That's just under 14 percent. Somehow Kentucky was able to squeak out the 58-56 win.
Kentucky coach John Calipari gave a lot of credit to Vanderbilt's defense.
"I thought that Vandy's game plan against us today was perfect," Calipari said. "They played physical, held the ball on offense, controlled John Wall on defense and played zone against us, which made us attempt contested three pointers. This is the type of win that I love. We were able to grind it out. Everyone knows that we like to play fast, but we don't force our will on the opponent. When it comes to tournament time, you have to be able to play different styles and we did that tonight."
Coach Cal went on to praise the ‘Dores and the fans that were rocking Memorial. I hope he's right about the level of competition.
"Coaching from the end zone was unique but not difficult. The only thing that was different was how close I was to the officials," the UK coach said. "We were able to win a game tonight in an Elite Eight environment."
Back to the ‘Dores poor shooting, here is a breakdown of how things went so wrong on 3-point attempts:
Jermaine Beal - 0-5
Brad Tinsley - 0-4
John Jenkins - 1-6
Steve Tchiengang - 1-2
Lance Goulbourne - 0-2
Andre Walker - 0-1 (desperation attempt at end of shot clock)
It's scary to even think that Beal, Tinsley, and Jenkins could combine for 1-for-15 from long range. Coach Stallings seemed to be very happy with the way the team played.
"That was a really good college basketball game," Stallings said. "Both teams competed and both teams played hard. I'm proud of our team. Obviously, both teams struggled to make shots and that was our undoing. We had some open ones and had some that were contested. We had some good looks at the basket."
The game was a win-win situation for Vanderbilt. Their seeding won't be negatively impacted, but they did miss out on a chance to catapult up various ranking lists. They may have lost the chance to get to the 2 or 3-seed line.
Important thing we learned this week:
Steve Tchiengang can contribute in big games. Even though he didn't score against Ole Miss, he was a key in the Kentucky game. He scored seven points and grabbed eight rebounds in 19 minutes. Stallings was thrilled with his effort: "It was awesome," Stallings said. "He had a couple of bad turnovers in the second half, but his effort, his play on the boards, and his defense were outstanding." Hopefully his confidence will continue to grow and we will see more outings like this.
Vanderbilt has a good chance to get back to their winning ways this week. They host Georgia on Thursday, then travel to Arkansas on Saturday.
Photo by Stan Jones.