If nothing else can be said about Vanderbilt’s 76-75 victory over Alabama, one can say this: it was exciting and it was a win.
Vanderbilt got out to an early lead in the first half led by an impressive performance by an ill Matthew Fischer Davis and cemented by an unanswered 12-point run scored exclusively by Saben Lee.
But in the second half, Alabama’s defense started to adapt to Lee and gradually tightened the game up as Vanderbilt’s shooting went cold. The game seemed to be unraveling towards another near-miss for the Commodores, but with less than a minute left, Djery Baptiste recovered a loose ball to secure a the final lead that would, despite some more last-minute drama, hold for good.
“This was definitely a game that we needed,” second-year head coach Bryce Drew said after the game. “We’ve lost some heart-breakers this year, and we faced some adversity today late that we can learn from, but there is definitely a lot of excitement in the locker room tonight.”
One of the biggest questions about the team since the break has been about their lineup. Their new “small” lineup worked well against non-conference opponents like Houston Baptist and Alcorn State. Before the team’s game against Florida, Drew hinted that the lineup might need to be adjusted to match up with the larger SEC teams. Last year, a physical Alabama team beat Vanderbilt in a close road game. Additionally, Florida and South Carolina were able to wave the SEC flag last year in March Madness because of their forwards.
On the other hand, other teams in the conference have become smaller and faster in 2018 to compete. Ole Miss has put out a small lineup, and seven of the SEC’s top 10 scorers are under 5’5”, including the leader, Alabama’s Colin Sexton. Drew indicated that the experiment would continue into conference play before the Florida game when he said, “you want to create a mismatch on offense, and last year, Luke (Kornet) was able to do that.”
Sure enough, a small lineup did start against Florida, but they ended up trailing by twenty points at the half. The 6’8” Freshman Clevon Brown came in the game and had a good second half with five points and six rebounds. Vanderbilt caught up to make the final score 81-74, which was respectable loss against the top team in the conference, but ultimately unsatisfying for a team so accustomed to moral victories this year.
Meanwhile, Alabama was crushing the 11th-highest ranked team in the nation. Alabama actually had a higher RPI (a measure of strength of schedule) than Vanderbilt, and their players would have double digit-games against Texas A&M. Adding to the Commodore’s concerns was that Fisher-Davis did not practice on Tuesday because of illness.
But even before the tip-off, there was cause for optimism. The sports book dannysheridan.com had the game’s line at +3 points. A home-court advantage typically gets a team with some parity a +1 or +2, but it takes some Memorial Magic to cause Alabama to go 1-13 at Vanderbilt going into Tuesday night. Their only win in that span came in 2013.
“It’s tough winning on the road in the SEC,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said after the game. “Anyone can beat you.”
The first half was all about Vanderbilt, starting when Lee hit a long two-point shot for the first score of the game. Lee, who has struggled with hitting long shots so far this season, would hit two three-point shots in the game.
“Saben has been working a lot on his own on his shooting,” Drew said, “and the team was happy when he made those shots.”
Clevon Brown started the game as a reward for his performance at Florida and because Fisher-Davis was sick. But, the senior guard came into the game early on and sank three consecutive three-point shots. Vanderbilt matched Alabama’s skill from the charity stripe, going 100% in free-throws until six minutes left in the half.
With three minutes left in the half, Lee started making his 12-point run. When asked if he was aware of his counterpart in Sexton on the floor, Lee said he was.
“I’m a competitive player, and I knew expectations would be high,” he said. “But I didn’t know about the 12-point streak until Coach Drew told me.”
Vanderbilt would go into halftime with a ten point, 43-33 lead.
In the second half, Alabama started to slowly make their way back. Their defense improved as the mismatches that favored Lee in the first half started to work against him.
“We just tried to be more physical without fouling him on defense” Johnson said about the changes they made.
“Yeah, they’re really tough to play against,” Lee said, “they’re long and athletic, they take gaps, so they speed you up a lot defensively”
In the middle of the half, Vanderbilt went nearly four minutes without making a basket on offense and allowed an unanswered five-point run by Alabama. The Crimson Tide tied used their physicality to lead Vanderbilt by a multiple in shots made in the paint.
On top of that, Vanderbilt committed a series of costly turnovers and fouls as Alabama put on the press. The momentum seemed irreversible as Alabama came within striking range at 74-71. Riley LaChance was about to shoot from the corner when he lost control of the ball, and somehow it ended up in the hands of Baptiste, who then made a layup.
“I don’t remember exactly what happened,” Baptiste said, “I just remember seeing the ball and picking it up.”
However it came about, the layup was the final of key plays Baptiste made during the game. The forward, who barely played in the Florida game, contributed seven rebounds and 3 blocks.
“Djery gives us something different,” Drew said, “He gives us a burst of speed that allows him to get past his man, so there were some times when the shot clock was running down where he was able to hit a gap—if he can continue to do that, it will help our shooters get open shots.”
Drew seemed to confirmed that he is not close to making a routine starting five and might not ever name one.
“As a coach, it would be nice to have a set five that you go with every time, but you want to give them the best chance to win, and game to game different guys are stepping up, so you want to reward them with minutes.”
Vanderbilt will play South Carolina in Columbia on Saturday before coming home to face rival Tennessee this Tuesday.