Commodores blow lead, suffer heartbreaking loss to Arkansas

Vanderbilt held a 15-point lead over Arkansas with six minutes left, but it couldn't hold on.

Riley LaChance as Vanderbilt was stunned 71-70 against Arkansas at Memorial Gym January 24, 2017.

As Vanderbilt big man Luke Kornet caught the ball in the backcourt with 15 seconds left at Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday, the scene conjured up shades of the ending to the Commodores’ win at Florida on Saturday.

After turning the ball over and allowing Florida a last-second shot that missed the mark, Kornet did the same against Arkansas. The Razorbacks’ tough pressure defense forced an errant pass to give them the last shot, only this time the Commodores weren’t so lucky.

A scrum underneath the basket resulted in Arkansas’ favor, and Razorbacks guard Daryl Macon caught the ball before being fouled behind the three-point line by Commodore forward Joe Toye. Macon stepped to the line and calmly knocked down three game-winning free throws to send Vanderbilt to a 71-70 loss.

A 15-point second-half lead wasn’t enough for the Commodores, as they fell to 9-11 overall and 3-5 in the SEC.

“Obviously this game hurts,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “We were in position to win this game for 37 minutes, and we talked about one of the keys to the game coming in was consistency. It was going to take 40 minutes to beat Arkansas, because all they need is a two-, three-minute stretch and they can win the game with their pressure and how quickly they can score.”

The first half was rough for both teams, aside from a quick burst in scoring from each side over the last couple of minutes. Arkansas struggled around the rim, as Kornet provided a strong defensive presence in the paint.

The Commodores, on the other hand, shot the ball well from three, knocking down five of 12. But head coach Bryce Drew’s team committed 10 first-half turnovers, even though Arkansas’ 39 percent shooting meant it couldn’t set its patented full-court press as often as it would have liked.

The play most emblematic of the first-half struggles came courtesy of Vanderbilt backup center Djery Baptiste. At one point, the 6’10” Haitian caught the ball in the backcourt after a made Arkansas basket and decided to try to break the Razorbacks’ press himself, dribbling the ball 60 feet up the court before losing it out of bounds.

The second half didn’t necessarily offer more scoring, but there were numerous stand-out plays from both teams. Kornet threw down a thunderous alley-oop from Payton Willis, while Joe Toye added three of his career-high 13 points on a difficult lay-in plus the foul.

Arkansas’ Anton Beard and Daryl Macon each knocked down deep threes early in the half to stem Vanderbilt’s momentum, but Willis brought the energy back to the crowd by shaking Arkansas’ Trey Thompson with a crossover and finishing at the basket.

It was the play of Toye that helped Vanderbilt continue to increase its lead and create separation. His corner three-pointer to push the lead to 54-43 with just under eight minutes remaining gave the Commodores a comfortable margin to work with, while Arkansas couldn’t buy an outside shot.

But Arkansas got back into it over the last few minutes thanks to the heroics of Dusty Hannahs, as well as the Commodores’ suddenly toothless offense. While LaChance converted on multiple free throws en route to his team-leading 16 points, Arkansas continued to stay alive as Hannahs sprinted down the court for layups on three different possessions.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt made just one shot from the field over the game’s last four minutes, a run-out layup from Nolan Cressler.

“I think our defense leads to our offense, and not getting stops probably hurt our offense a little bit,” said Roberson, who turned in a 14-point, 11-rebound effort. “That takes away our confidence on the offensive end, when we know they’re making a run and we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do defensively.”

The key decision in the game came via Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson’s choice to play out the possession that ended in Kornet’s turnover rather than foul with a roughly 10-second difference between the shot clock and game clock.

“We trust Luke. Luke has a great feel, he handles the ball a lot,” Drew said. “They were doing a good job denying all our guards; obviously we want to get the ball back to our guards in the backcourt to bring it up. … They made a really good play, got a deflection on it.”

Toye’s foul was the final error. Macon was off balance and forced to launch from long range, but Toye made enough contact to entice the officials into making the call.

“Joe gave great energy,” Drew said. “On the offensive end, I thought he was really, really good. … He was great on the offensive end, but we gotta continue to work on that defensive end and correct some of those mental mistakes.”

Vanderbilt has three days to get over the loss before hosting the 13-6 Iowa State Cyclones as part of the Big 12/SEC challenge Saturday at 3 p.m.

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