Vanderbilt squeaks by UNC Asheville 79-76

The Vanderbilt Commodores beat UNC Ashville on Friday, November 17th, 2017. Taken by Brent Szklaruk

Bouncing back after a tough loss to Belmont, in an exciting finish that went down to the wire, the Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the UNC Asheville Bulldogs 79-76.

Saben Lee provided the spark that kept the Commodores going in a sluggish first half. Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis led the way in the second half, each scoring 17 points.

Baptiste finished off multiple dunks, ending with 13 points and 8 rebounds, and Roberson was the steady leading force with yet another double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Coach Bryce Drew emphasized the value and importance of the play of the seniors.

“I think you got to credit our three seniors, thought they were tremendous, you know after we got down, I thought they stepped up their leadership role which is something they’re going to have to do throughout the year,” he said.

Both teams started the game slow, trading turnovers and offensive fouls, but it was the Bulldogs who took the strong advantage, taking the lead 18-8 at 10:32, nailing two threes and attacking the basket at will.

The Commodores adjusted to the Bulldogs’ hard hedging of their pick and rolls, but were still unable to finish shots. By and large, they looked completely lifeless on the court, unable to generate offense and use their size advantage effectively on defense.

With the Commodores needing a jolt, Saben Lee was the one who electrified both the team and the crowd, with two straight speedy drives and layups, capitalized by an explosive poster dunk with 9:22 left in the half that somehow topped the one he slammed home last Friday against Austin Peay.

On Lee, Coach Drew said, “[Lee] does a lot of things out there you can’t teach. I think he got winded a little bit…he’s a freshman…so there’s a lot of decisions out there that hopefully as the year progresses he’ll make better reads.”

From that point onwards, the Commodores clawed their way back into the game, but were unable to take the lead due mainly to poor defense, unable to bother UNC Asheville both outside the arc and inside it.

The game opened up, flowing quickly, once UNC started playing a heavy attacking defense, bringing three guys above the top of the key. Coach Drew quickly countered with a small-ball lineup, subbing in Roberson for Baptiste.

Finding some success, with a Fisher-Davis four-point play and Roberson three-point play, the positive scores were offset by multiple turnovers and struggles hitting the key pressure-alleviating passes to Roberson at the foul line.

Contributing to the problem, the Commodores allowed UNC Asheville to get to the rim and finish at will, giving up three straight layups at one point, allowing the Bulldogs’ hounding defense to get set up after those buckets.

However, the Commodores found their openings, with back-to-back threes by LaChance off of patient passing on one possession and a offensive tip rebound by Baptiste. A nice roll to the rim by Baptiste led to his game-tying dunk, but a jumper by UNC at the halftime buzzer gave them the 37-35 advantage at halftime.

In the second half, Vanderbilt came out firing, looking much more explosive, with Fisher-Davis and LaChance both launching and hitting multiple threes. The Commodores flashed an exciting sequence of three straight blocks from Roberson, Fisher-Davis, and Brown, unable to convert them into points, but taking a 46-37 lead off of their much improved play.

However, UNC Asheville hung in tough, nailing threes at a 55.6% rate in the second half, and drawing multiple fouls, coming within three points multiple times.

The Commodores hung onto their lead with Fisher-Davis putting on a highlight performance, nailing jumpers outside the arc and in the midrange, responding very well to his two airballs in the first half. Baptiste finished three powerful dunks, including a nice one-dribble and up move and a putback slam.

Coach Drew mentioned Fisher-Davis’ ankle sprain is still bothering him, as he “still can’t raise up or jump like he’s capable,” and Roberson noted Baptiste’s strong play multiple times, commenting that “Djery played great tonight, and his energy was what got us going.”

In the tense closing minutes, despite incredible shot-making by UNC Asheville to continue to respond time and time again, a three-point play by Roberson, a clutch step through layup by LaChance, and clutch free throws were enough to secure the victory.

Vanderbilt will welcome their toughest opponent thus far, the USC Trojans ranked at #10, Sunday, November 19th, at 7:00pm.