When senior guard Riley LaChance, an 89% free-throw shooter entering the game, stepped to the charity strike with 29 seconds remaining in the second half and the Commodores trailing by four points, those were the odds he’d miss all three of his free throws.
Inexplicably, those odds proved to be in Kentucky’s favor, as LaChance proceeded to miss all three of his attempts.
Those misses proved to be the final nail in Vanderbilt’s coffin, as Kentucky finished off the Commodores by a final score of 74-67.
Combined with a free-throw miss earlier in the half on the front end of a one-and-one, LaChance was 0-4 from the line in the game. However, according to senior Jeff Roberson, that’s not the stat line that shows who Riley LaChance really is.
“We talked about it as a team after it,” he said. “Coach Drew especially made it clear that those free throws don’t define him. We’d rather have him on the line than anybody else. We trust him regardless. He’s going to shoot, he’s going to keep shooting and he’s going to make them. It doesn’t define him, he going to keep his head up and not lose confidence because he is a great player.”
LaChance was visibly upset with himself afterwards. Normally a sharpshooter, he missed all of his free-throw attempts and three-point attempts in this game, scoring just six points.
Even for a seasoned veteran like LaChance, that kind of game can take a toll on confidence. It’s the mark of a true athlete to be able to put something like that behind you.
Head coach Bryce Drew expects nothing more than that from LaChance going forward.
“He really doesn’t have a choice,” Drew said. “If you want to be a basketball player, you’ve got to have confidence. We talked about it in there, missing these three free throws doesn’t define you. You need to come back and get in the gym and we’re going to work tomorrow and we’re going to get better.”
“That’s the only choice he has. If he chooses a different path, it won’t be the choice that our program is going. He’s only going to have one choice in our program which way to go with his confidence.”
LaChance’s misses at the line did not cost the Commodores a lead or the game, however, as Kentucky was one step ahead of the Commodores the whole way through. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a thorn in Vanderbilt’s side throughout the afternoon, putting up 22 points and adding six assists. Jeff Roberson led the way for the Commodores with 20 points.
Vanderbilt did pretty much everything right defensively for most of the first half. They had four steals in the first half and picked up 11 defensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. If it weren’t for a few less-than-stellar foul calls and some breakdowns in the final minutes of the half, the Commodores could have held the Wildcats to less than 30 points in the half.
Kentucky players found themselves double-teamed every time they got the ball in the post. Drew said that was a game plan development that they beat to death in practice.
On the offensive side, it was a different story. After a great three-point shooting performance against Tennessee earlier in the week, Vanderbilt was 1 for 11 from long-range in the first half. They kept themselves alive and within a few points for most of the first half thanks to seven offensive rebounds.
Roberson said the team severely underperformed from long range in the first half.
“Their zone is pretty long, but I think we still had very good shots that we just didn’t knock down that we’re more than capable of,” he said. “We got a few more to fall in the second half, but it was just a matter of being ready to shoot. A couple of guys passed up some shots.”
Freshman phenom Saben Lee struggled with Kentucky’s sheer size on defense, getting stuffed at the rim on multiple occasions. However, he did get free for a highlight-reel alley-oop. Lee finished the first half with two points, two rebounds and an assist. He picked up his play in the second half to finish with 12 points and three assists.
Djery Baptiste made the all-hustle team in the first half. Despite some offensive blunders, his effort did not go unnoticed. Midway through the first frame, he missed an easy layup, but quickly made up for it with a block and an offensive board on the ensuing possession. Baptiste did pick up a pair of fouls, but still managed two blocks, two boards and two points in the first half.
Vanderbilt kept the score within six points for most of the half, but went the last 4:25 of the first half without a field goal and the last 2:50 without a point. A P.J. Washington free-throw and Sacha Killeya-Jones put-back layup in the dying second of the half brought Kentucky’s advantage to 36-27 at the half.
The second half started out as the polar opposite of the first half. Vanderbilt started hitting their shots, but looked as if they lost a step on defense. Kentucky had an easier time getting penetration in the paint and Gilgeous-Alexander started getting hot. A Payton Willis corner three-pointer got the Commodores within two points, but a quick bucket by Gilgeous-Alexander and a steal-and-score by Kevin Knox took the Wildcats’ advantage back up to six points at the under-12 minute timeout.
Drew said his defensive gameplan didn’t change in the second half to let Kentucky get more tough buckets.
“I think in the first half they just scored once on our double-teams and in the second half they got more just flat-out driving the ball,” he said. “I want to say over half of their baskets were non-assist baskets, so that’s just one-on-one driving it at us.”
Willis gave Vanderbilt its first lead of the half with a layup with 7:58 to go, but Kentucky quickly responded with a Washington dunk. Kentucky was clinging to a one-point advantage at the 6:19 mark.
Vanderbilt struggled to hit shots as the game approached the three-minute mark. A Knox and-one and follow-up layup put Kentucky ahead 64-59 with three minutes to play. Even after a Roberson up-and-under layup, a Hamidou Diallo corner three-pointer essentially clinched it for Kentucky.
The Commodores wouldn’t go down quietly, though. LaChance hit a layup and followed up a steal by getting fouled on a three-point attempt. However, his three rare misses from the line sealed Vanderbilt’s fate.
This was Vanderbilt’s seventh loss this season by ten points or less. That fact was not lost on Roberson, who is ready to start winning some tight ball games.
“We do have confidence,” he said. “We’re in every game, we’ve just got to find a way to break through and win these games. Being close is not good enough. It’s old. Everybody’s sick of it. We’ve got to win.”
Vanderbilt will hit the floor again on Tuesday when they take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville.