From looking like a bottom-tier SEC team just two short months ago to putting itself in the conversation for the NCAA tournament, Vanderbilt had already made an in-season turnaround as impressive as any in the program’s recent memory.
In sweeping the No. 17 Florida Gators Friday night and advancing to the SEC tournament semifinals, the turnaround is complete. Behind Riley LaChance’s 18 points and Jeff Roberson’s 16 points and eight rebounds, Vanderbilt claimed a 72-62 overtime win to likely lock up an NCAA tournament bid.
Florida had plenty of motivation Friday after losing both regular-season games to the ‘Dores, the latter of which came despite uncharacteristically poor three-point shooting by Vanderbilt. Friday’s game was a different story, as the Commodores lit it up from behind the arc in the first half and never slowed down.
Much like Thursday’s game against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt started off slow on offense. The ‘Dores had only five points through nearly seven-and-a-half minutes to begin the game, but threes by guards Matthew Fisher-Davis and Payton Willis kept the game close early.
“Florida really came out with great intensity, were beating us to balls and rebounds, attacking the rim,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “We weren’t getting much on offense. And, you know, I thought as we started to get more aggressive, we slowly got back in the game.”
Willis put together one of his best halves of the SEC season, nailing a second three before outfighting Florida forward Devin Robinson for a key defensive rebound. The freshman chipped in three assists to go with his six first-half points, and he didn’t commit a turnover.
The success of Florida’s small lineups in the teams’ game last weekend at Memorial Gym loomed as a potential advantage for the Gators, and head coach Mike White’s squad had success early with them. Small-ball center Keith Stone converted two baskets immediately after subbing in for starting center Kevarrius Hayes, and Vanderbilt struggled to keep up with Florida’s faster, more athletic lineup.
Nevertheless, Florida continued to run out lineups with a traditional center in Hayes. The ‘Dores took advantage, with Kornet freed up to hang around the rim on defense. Vanderbilt’s big man also showed feistiness in the post, knocking down a right- and left-handed hook thanks to crisp and decisive footwork.
“I think our guys did a great job of finding me inside and just kind of trying to take advantage of mismatches, and we did it from the inside,” Kornet said. “I mean, it wasn’t always the prettiest basketball, but we came together and made shots when it came down to it.”
The Commodores closed out the half with an alley oop from Nolan Cressler to Kornet, thanks to a well-executed screen by Roberson against Florida’s zone. The Gators’ switch from man-to-man defense late in the half helped keep them close, as Vanderbilt took a 33-28 lead to the locker room.
Florida’s main adjustment to start the second half was its use of a full-court press. Vanderbilt has struggled against pressure for much of the season, and the Gators forced Drew’s team into three sloppy turnovers in the half’s first few minutes.
“[The press] definitely changed the game,” White said. “Our matchup zone we put in on Tuesday was pretty good to us as well, other than the lob in the first half.”
Vanderbilt looked to be in trouble when Florida’s KeVaughn Allen nailed a deep jumper from straight on for three of his 16 points. The Commodores followed up with a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play due to the Gators’ pressure.
Instead, the Commodores came together. They held Florida without a basket for over five minutes, turning a tie game at 42-42 to a six-point lead before a Kasey Hill layup made it 51-47 with just under six minutes remaining.
“We could have folded three, four times in the game,” Drew said. “They kept coming back and fighting through fatigue, went through some spells where we didn’t score to well, to give us a chance to win at the end.”
Kornet’s improved post play continued to show in the second half, as he took advantage of mismatches against smaller defenders on the block en route to 12 points. His 10 rebounds also helped limit Florida to only one shot each time down the floor; the Gators grabbed only nine offensive rebounds.
Back-to-back threes from Florida’s Devin Robinson and Allen late in the game changed things. The Gators had possession with a chance to take the lead with under a minute remaining, but Chris Chiozza’s shot missed and ricocheted out to Fisher-Davis. After LaChance lost the ball in the half court, Fisher-Davis picked it up and launched a deep three early in the shot clock that barely drew rim.
Vanderbilt opted for a Kornet three with about 15 seconds left, which missed badly and caromed into Roberson’s hands. Roberson drew a foul and almost got his put-back to go, missing the first pressure-packed free throw before knocking down the second to stop a 9-0 Florida run over three minutes.
Joe Toye was the hero for the ‘Dores, blocking Hayes’ last-second put-back attempt without fouling after Kornet forced a miss by Hill to end regulation.
“We had a feeling they were going to go to the basket with the time to score,” LaChance said. “Luke made a great play, and Jeff had a huge rebound for us as well.”
Vanderbilt caught a break early in overtime as Hill slipped and lost the ball, resulting in a wide-open three for Nolan Cressler that pushed the Commodores’ lead to five.
LaChance wielded the dagger, pulling up over Justin Leon from nearly NBA range to give Vanderbilt a nine-point lead with a bit over two minutes left.
“They had been switching ball screens all game,” LaChance said. “I got a switch on the ball screen and [Leon] was backing up a little bit, and I just kind of let it go.”
A monster Roberson and-1 slam with 41 seconds remaining was the icing on the cake of Vanderbilt’s sixth win over likely NCAA tournament teams this season. The Commodores are a dangerous team and now get the chance to play for a berth in the conference title game.
“I think again, the credit goes to the guys,” Drew said. “Anytime you go through some change in your life, you can react different ways. It’s kind of been a progression throughout the year.”
The Commodores return to action Saturday at Bridgestone Arena for the SEC tournament semifinals against either the third-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks or sixth-seeded Ole Miss Rebels at approximately 2:30 p.m. CT.