With just 29 seconds left in the game, the Commodores found themselves in the mix of a thriller at Memorial Gym.
A late foul on a three-point attempt gave Riley LaChance an opportunity to cut the Kentucky lead to just one with three made free throws. Even one or two free throws would have made it a one-possession game. Yet, for a team that seemingly hasn’t caught a break all year, last night wasn’t going to be the exception.
LaChance struck iron on all three attempts, effectively ending Vanderbilt’s upset bid. It was the latest in a string of tough losses for the Commodores, who were coming off a hard-fought game in which they fell to Tennessee. This game, however, was far different from the Tennessee game.
Here are three thoughts from Saturday’s loss.
Night and Day for Drew
Bryce Drew faced a lot of heat for his team’s inability to defend in the post Tuesday night against Tennessee, and for good reason. Grant Williams torched Vanderbilt’s bigs to the tune of 37 points on 60% shooting, including a 13/15 night from the stripe. I criticized Drew heavily for the lack of double teams thrown Williams’s way.
However, Drew’s gameplan against Kentucky was nothing short of brilliant. From the get-go, the Commodores were swarming Kentucky’s bigs with double teams, forcing errant passes, and doing all they could to prevent giving up easy buckets in the post. 14 points combined for Nick Richards and P.J. Washington, Kentucky’s starting big men, proved its effectiveness. The Wildcats hesitated to pull the trigger on threes that Vanderbilt gave them, trying to force it inside anyway, which resulted often times in blocked shots and missed free throws. Drew actually outcoached John Calipari in this game, and if not for a couple more made threes or free throws, the scoreboard may have reflected that.
Once again, a team widely known for its sharp-shooting acumen missed the mark. Vanderbilt left eight free points at the foul line Saturday. Those eight free points are the difference between a seven-point loss and a one-point win. Of course, basketball doesn’t always work that way, but Vanderbilt witnessed, in its most painful form, the effect of missed free throws. It’s the fourth time in as many losses that the Commodores have struggled from the charity stripe, shooting 70%, 68%, 70%, and 71%, respectively.
For a team with a very small margin of error, missed free throws are inexcusable, and they took Vanderbilt right out of a game that easily could have been won, particularly in the closing moments. If the Commodores are going to right the ship going forward, it’s going to have to start with making free throws.
Sophomores Step Up
Maybe Djery Baptiste and Clevon Brown are tired of hearing about how badly they’re getting beat in the post. Maybe it took an opponent like Kentucky to light a fire under them. Whatever the reason, Baptiste and Brown came to play. It will rarely show up on the stat sheet, particularly on Baptiste’s end, but the two sophomore bigs held Kentucky’s frontcourt in check, attacked the offensive glass, and blocked four shots. It didn’t go unnoticed by their teammates
“When he plays hard, there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Jeff Roberson of Baptiste. “He’s a big guy. When he plays hard offensively and defensively, he’s fighting for position and rebounds. He’s a huge asset to our team.”
Vanderbilt’s lone sophomore guard stepped his game up in a big way as well. Payton Willis looked like the team’s best backcourt player all night, picking up two huge steals down the stretch, and two timely threes to cut into Kentucky’s lead and bring the crowd back into the game. Willis has taken over a lot of the on-ball duties, and Drew’s confidence in him has grown as the season has progressed.
“Payton did a really good job of moving the ball and got some loose balls, some 50-50 balls that we needed to get some momentum going our way, so his play has definitely been a positive,” said Drew.
With Matthew Fisher-Davis battling a shoulder injury, Willis might garner a bigger role in the lineup going forward.