Defense shines, but Commodores can’t get it done against Auburn

Vanderbilt Plays Auburn in Mens Basketball on Saturday, February 16, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Vanderbilt Plays Auburn in Men’s Basketball on Saturday, February 16, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Drew Perez

Under Head Coach Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt has never been known for its defense. The Commodores ranked 219th in the nation last season in defensive efficiency, a metric that hasn’t improved with this year’s all-around woes.

Yet in Vanderbilt’s Feb. 16 clash with the Auburn Tigers, it was defense that kept the team in it throughout the game.

Vanderbilt held the Tigers to just 27 first-half points, the fewest they’ve allowed to any SEC team in a half this season. The Tigers got there on just six for 24 shooting, with only two points in the paint.

“We were able to get back on defense and defend five-on-five for the second straight game,” Drew said. “These guys really defended well.”

From the start, Auburn’s offensive playbook largely consisted of perimeter play and finding three-point looks. More than half of Auburn’s field goal attempts were three-point tries, and whenever Vanderbilt narrowed the deficit, Auburn would respond by extending it with another three-point dagger. Even a strong 43-27 rebounding margin didn’t do much as the Commodores only put up 11 second-chance points.

With a 4-point deficit at halftime, all the Commodores needed was some Memorial Magic to get their first conference win.

But when they came out for the second half, the Commodores seemed to have lost their energy. While it wasn’t a runaway win by Auburn, Vanderbilt was never able to even up the score, and like so many other tough losses this season, they were simply outplayed in the second half.

“We held them to 34.7 percent,” Drew said. “The effort and the toughness was there tonight. It was the passing the ball to the black and gold that was the Achilles heel today.”

Auburn’s 64 points were the second-fewest conceded by Vanderbilt against an SEC opponent this season. Only the Kentucky Wildcats scored fewer in their January 12 home win over the Commodores.

“I’m extremely proud of our effort, extremely proud of our toughness, extremely proud of our defense, extremely proud of us fighting until the end, but disappointed with turnovers,” Drew concluded.

In an afternoon when their defense excelled, the offensive effort came up short. Vanderbilt shot an abysmal 33.3% from the floor, including zero points off turnovers. While Nesmith had another impressive display with 24 points and 14 rebounds — his first career double-double — no other player put up more than 10 points. Shittu attempted just two field goals and fouled out with nine minutes left to play.

“Our defense has been a lot better than past games, so if we can take from this and just keep getting better defensively, we’ll crack [the other team] one time,” Nesmith said.

With this loss, Vanderbilt’s losing streak extends to 13, just one shy of the longest in program history. On Tuesday, the Commodores will travel to Knoxville with a chip on their shoulder and a second chance to knock off top-ranked Tennessee.