The Ways of a Winner: VU 64, Florida 60

Florida wanted to win. Florida needed to win. Florida defended hard. No one could have accused the typically timid Gators of being soft on Tuesday night, but a group of young men from Nashville remained undeterred in the face of a desperate effort from a team trying to put on its "dancing" shoes.


Yes, even when they don't play their best, and even when they get outworked on the glass, the boys in black still manage to pull wins out of the fire. The No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament is locked up and a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seed remains a possibility. With the sole exception of the excruciating home loss to Kentucky, it's been that kind of a joyride for Kevin Stallings and Co. in the first few months of 2010.

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NCAA hopes were on the line for the host Florida Gators as Vanderbilt came to Gainesville, Fla. The Commodores, behind the emergence of freshman guard John Jenkins, very possibly dashed those hopes and gave themselves an outside chance at a shared SEC regular season title with their 64-60 victory over the Gators at the Stephen O'Connell Center.

Vanderbilt began the game knocking Billy Donovan's squad back on its heels. While VU typically pounds the post early in games, tonight's contest featured the backcourt bombing of Jermaine Beal and Jenkins, who earned his second consecutive start in place of Brad Tinsley. The dynamic duo combined for 14 of the Dores' first 20 points and led Vandy to an early 20-8 lead.

Florida adjusted quickly out of a timeout to counter the Vandy guards, so Stallings returned to attacking the post and emphasizing the need to feed the ball to A.J. Ogilvy, who scored eight points in the final 13 minutes of the half. Unfortunately for the Commodores, Florida big man Vernon Macklin not only matched but outscored Ogilvy (by two points) over the same timespan as the Gators also found their inside attack.

Vanderbilt's electric shooting was not going to last all game, however, and the Gators battled back behind Macklin and previously struggling reserves Dan Werner and Ray Shipman. Werner, playing his final regular season home game (it won't be his final home game if Florida falls to the NIT), scored six points in the latter part of the first half, while Shipman posted the last five points of the half - including a buzzer-beating three - to bring Florida's deficit to only three at the break.

The second half began with Vanderbilt extending its lead back to seven, but then Florida took control behind the play of its two frontcourt starters, Macklin and Tyus. The two combined for 13 second-half points to give Florida a lead as large as five points on separate occasions.

Florida had entered the game with a 19-0 record when leading at the 5:00 mark of regulation, a fact Donovan has continually reminded his players of. Sure enough, the Gators were on top (55-54) when the clock hit that magical number… magical, at least, in the eyes of the Gainesville faithful. Someone in a black jersey needed to provide sterner stuff if a 19-game trend was going to be derailed in test run number 20. With Vanderbilt's offense posting just 16 points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, someone needed to deliver the instant offense that had left the building after the Dores' early shooting-gallery showcase in the first half.

Enter Jenkins.

The freshman, who only two weeks ago was hospitalized with a virus, tied the game at 57 with a long 3-pointer with just over four minutes left. After a pair of Macklin free throws, Jenkins hit another three off of dribble penetration by Beal, giving the Dores a one-point lead with three minutes to go.

The key play in the game followed another Macklin free throw. With 2:30 to play, Ogilvy attempted a turnaround jumper in the post that missed. He quickly jumped in an effort to tip in the miss, but before he could get to the ball, Florida's Werner tipped the ball… into the VU basket. The freak play gave the Dores a lead they would not relinquish.

Vanderbilt nearly blew the game in the final minute, it must be noted. Leading by two with 0:53 left, the Commodores elected to not force a two-for-one situation in which they would have possessed the last shot in the event the Gators tied the game. Instead, Beal attempted to run the shot clock down but had the ball stolen from his grasp by Gator guard Erving Walker. Following a Florida timeout, Donovan elected to use last year's Vanderbilt nemesis, Chandler Parsons, as a decoy and set up a wide open 3-point shot for Kenny Boynton to try to win the game in regulation. Boynton's shot missed, though, and Beal sealed the game with two more free throws.

Despite getting outrebounded and outmuscled most of the game, Vanderbilt toughened up in the final minutes of this fistfight, which – after the first 10 minutes – did not feature the freewheeling offense and loosey-goosey defense that had characterized the three previous meetings between these teams. The Gators beat the Dores on the offensive boards, 16-6, which formed the basis for their ability to build a second-half lead. With that having been said, VU hauled in five of its six offensive rebounds in the final 2:30, keeping the pressure on the Gators' defensive personnel.

Stallings' boys locked down defensively when it mattered, too. VU held Florida to one field goal in the final 11 minutes, a Macklin layup. Even better for Commodore fans (and worse for those in orange and blue), the Gators scored only one point - a Macklin free throw - in the final 4:02. It is defense such as this that may allow Vandy to play more than one weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

The hero of the night was Jenkins, though. With Tinsley struggling as of late, Jenkins was inserted into the lineup Saturday at Arkansas and responded with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He was even better on Tuesday. The young sharpshooter out of Gallatin, Tenn., nailed 6 of 8 shots from long distance, with all of his 18 points coming beyond the arc.

Jenkins' effectiveness extended to the defensive end as well, a sure sign of a mature player who is on his way to becoming a star. Jenkins joined Beal, Tinsley, and the rest of the VU guards in preventing the Florida backcourt – Walker and Boynton - from finding a shooting rhythm. Walker, the sophomore point guard, was 1 of 9 from the field. The freshman Boynton was even worse, shooting 2 of 15 on the night with a 1-of-6 performance on 3-pointers, including his fateful and fatal miss in the closing seconds. While Donovan's guards did have nine assists, they also threw away five turnovers.

Jenkins' play was so essential – and excellent – on this night not only for its offensive heroics and its defensive contributions, but because the A-game effort covered for the struggles of Jeffery Taylor. The stellar sophomore, who at times is Vanderbilt's most valuable player, was held to four points on 2-of-6 shooting. Taylor simply did not get many touches against the constantly changing Florida defenses. What was worse for the Commodores was the fact that he did not grab a single rebound. While one sub-par performance should not be reason to give Stallings and his staff cause for worry, there is no doubt they will be curious to see how Taylor rebounds (both literally and figuratively) Saturday against South Carolina.

Another reason for concern coming out of this game – and certainly the most alarming problem this team needs to solve in the midst of its winning ways - is the inability of the Commodores' post players to deal with physical play. A.J. Ogilvy matched up statistically against Vernon Macklin - 16 points and eight rebounds for the Big Aussie looked reasonable in the face of Macklin's 21-and-9 performance - but Florida's Georgetown transfer frequently outmuscled Ogilvy for position inside, especially on two highlight-reel dunks in the first half. All of the Vandy bigs, whether it was Ogilvy, Andre Walker, or Festus Ezeli, were all ineffective against Macklin in the first part of the second half when Florida took the lead. The Commodores are sure to face physical post players down the road, whether that is Jarvis Varnado and/or DeMarcus Cousins again in the SEC Tournament, or someone like a Cole Aldrich (of Kansas) come the NCAAs.

Kevin Stallings – saying what must be on the mind of Vandy fans everywhere – offered this remark in the postgame press conference: "They just out-rebounded us on the board and that was really disappointing. Other than that, I thought our kids really competed. Both teams competed really hard. That was a tough, tough game to win. We feel fortunate to have won it."

How can Vanderbilt be more forceful come tourney time, and not need to depend quite so much on the good fortune that's been coming its way? How can Vandy compete more effectively against a brawny opponent's physical posts? One way is by double-teaming opposing big men on the catch. That can be a difficult proposition, however, when you play a team such as Kentucky and shooters surround the post player you are banging against inside. Florida's shooters could not hit from the perimeter, converting only 15.4 % on 3-pointers, so Macklin's outstanding play did not hurt the Commodores. The boys in black (or, given their high seed, home white jerseys instead) don't figure to be so lucky in the NCAA Tournament.

The other strategy for slowing a dominant - or at least physical - post player is to use a zone defense. Stallings frequently went to the zone against Florida, but Gator players such as Alex Tyus got the ball in the heart of the zone, the mid to high post, and forced the Commodore defense to collapse.

Vanderbilt's win puts the Commodores in prime position to finish the regular season in the top twelve. Currently VU sits at No. 13 in the AP poll and a win Saturday over the Gamecocks means the Commodores will finish the season 24-6 overall and 13-3 in the SEC. Who knows? Maybe the Gators, knowing they might need a win over Kentucky to go dancing NCAA-style, will go out and defeat a Wildcat squad that is for the most part secure in its NCAA seeding. Should that happen, an SEC co-championship banner will be hung from the Memorial Gym rafters. While John Calipari's team wins the tiebreaker for the No. 1 seed in the SEC East, earning even a share of the conference championship would be quite an accomplishment for Kevin Stallings' crew, an outfit that should only lose Jermaine Beal after this season.

But why look ahead to next year when there is still so much promise this season? The consensus among college basketball writers seems to be that Syracuse, Kansas, and Kentucky are the three elite teams this season. If Vanderbilt can pull out a No. 3 seed, it could mean that the Dores would stay in the South Region. This is a legitimate possibility since Kentucky will more than likely be placed in the East Region, due to the fact that the East Regionals are being held in the Carrier Dome. NCAA schools are not allowed to play in regionals they host, which means that Syracuse would have to leave the East Region and become the No. 1 seed in the South. Kentucky would take Syracuse's place as the No. 1 seed in the East, which means that Vandy could be bracketed as the main SEC team in the South Region.

That's not a bad place to be in a year when the tournament may be as wide open as ever. If Vanderbilt can just address that nagging rebounding problem, who knows how far this team can go? Another night in the SEC showed that even without their very best stuff, the Commodores were still able to conquer a roused opponent that had much more to gain – and lose – on the basketball court.

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