Commodores let another lead slip away against South Carolina


(Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Simon Gibbs, Senior Writer

The Vanderbilt Commodores hosted the South Carolina Gamecocks on Wednesday, still in pursuit of their first SEC win. While the first three conference matchups were rather discouraging, tonight’s 74-71 loss may have been the dagger.

As head coach Bryce Drew addressed the media after the game, he seemed just as confused as the spectators.

“I’m sure you guys are saying the same thing I’m saying right now,” said Drew. “How in the world did we lose that game? That was a game we should’ve won. That was our game to win. And in the last five minutes, we just did not make the plays at the free throw line, at the defensive end, that we needed to to win.”

Vanderbilt came out swinging; early indications pointed toward their first SEC win. They held a ten point lead at halftime, powered by Aaron Nesmith’s career night and flawless first half, but South Carolina slowly chipped away in the second. Thanks to Vanderbilt’s whopping 26 fouls and 13 missed free throws, South Carolina was able to steal what should’ve been an easy win for Vanderbilt.

Once again, the game seemed like a tale of two halves.

The contest started off slowly on the offensive side, as both the Commodores and Gamecocks struggled to pull away with a lead. Fans were thrilled to see flashes of Simi Shittu’s brilliant passing, but once again, they were faced with discouragement on the ensuing possession.

The biggest headline of the first five minutes involved a high-speed collision between Joe Toye and a Gamecock defender, leaving Toye on the hardwood and in visible pain. The Commodores called a timeout and eventually, Toye was able to walk off the court himself. After a short assessment on the bench, he was redirected to the locker room.

Thankfully, the Commodores were given the reassurance they’ve been seeking all season.

Not only did Toye check back into the game, but the Commodores began to find a rhythm. This rhythm drew parallels to their first half performance against Kentucky game, as just about every shot they took seemed to fall.

Aaron Nesmith, who expressed frustration with his shooting against Kentucky, was seeking redemption. Luckily, he found his shooting stroke once again at Memorial.

Just twelve minutes through the game, Nesmith was five for five from the field, including four from beyond the arc. He finished the half with 16 points, having missed just one missed shot, along with four rebounds, an assist and no turnovers. 

Nesmith was certainly the story of the first half, and this display served as yet another indication of his immense versatility on the court.

With Nesmith on a roll and the Gamecocks in some serious foul trouble, the Commodores had no problem increasing their lead to ten at the half. Additionally, Vanderbilt managed to force seven turnovers and put to rest any concerns about their defense.

However, as South Carolina continued to send players to the line, Vanderbilt continued its subpar free throw performance.

Struggling at the line has become all too familiar for Commodores, and it may not have impacted the outcome of this game, but it’s still a reason to be concerned. Vanderbilt is set to enter one of the tougher stretches on their schedule this season, and if they continue to shoot 68% from the line, it may become a deciding factor.

Somehow, the second half got off to an even slower start than the first.

In just 55 seconds of game time, Vanderbilt’s first half momentum was slowed down by a three-minute long video review, and three fouls. The game was hardly moving, and just when the Commodores started to regain momentum, South Carolina slowed the game to a halt once again with a timeout.

After what seemed like an eternity, five minutes of game time had passed. At this point, South Carolina had a messy tally of seven fouls and three turnovers, while Vanderbilt had three fouls and four turnovers of their own.

The sloppy play may have been short lived, but it gave South Carolina the chance to go on a 7-0 run. Eventually, with just six and a half minutes left to play, the score was knotted up at 57.

Vanderbilt needed something to shift the momentum back to their side.

Matt Ryan, who was previously 0-4 from the field, answered their call.

Ryan knocked down a huge corner three to put Vanderbilt up by four. It certainly brought the crowd to their feet, but South Carolina wouldn’t give up.

Once again, Ryan stepped up to the plate and knocked down another huge three. Of course, South Carolina had the same response, as they tied the game with yet another bucket.

With the amount of lead changes in the final minute and a half, Vanderbilt fans were practically holding their breath until the the clock hit zero.

Some questionable calls propelled South Carolina back into the ballgame, and ultimately, gave them the winning tally. With little time left in the game, Saben Lee had a terrific block on a Gamecock player driving to the basket. Unfortunately, the referee did not even hesitate. Rather, he immediately blew his whistle and penalized Lee with a technical foul. Apparently, Lee exchanged some words with the South Carolina player while he was on the ground.

“I think Saben blocked his shot,” said Coach Drew. “He must’ve said something to him when he blocked it. It was awful quick, but I couldn’t see the whole play and Saben didn’t come and say he didn’t do anything, so I assume it was the right call…That was very costly. That turned into a five point possession, we had the momentum and that really shifted things.”

The Commodores were awarded the ball with less than 15 seconds left, but the nervous possession resulted in a missed fadeaway by Saben Lee.

In the end, the Commodores had failed to pick up their first SEC win and had blown another lead in the process. There are a number of improvements that must be made if they want to compete moving forward.

Vanderbilt is slated to host Mississippi State, ranked 24th in the nation, followed by 3rd ranked Tennessee. The next two contests include a road trip against 20th ranked Oklahoma, and then a home game against a dangerous, top-15 Kentucky team. In any of these matchups, if the Commodores repeat tonight’s performance and forfeit 13 points on missed free throws, while committing 26 fouls, it will be far more ugly.

Aaron Nesmith acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy moving forward, but he knows what it takes to power through.

“[We just] need to be tougher and stick together. said Nesmith. He proceeded to look down at the box score and continued, “And making free throws. I didn’t know we missed 13 free throws and a lot of them were down the stretch. Free throws win and lose games, so we just have to be better.”