Vanderbilt struggles to find offense in 61-55 loss to the Florida Gators

After their 3-0 start a minute into the game, the Commodores did not lead again for the remainder of the night.

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Hunter Long

Scotty Pippen Jr. (2) goes up for a lay-up during Vanderbilt's 61-55 loss to the Florida Gators.

Alyssa Muir, Deputy Sports Editor

Three days after making nine threes and putting up 62 points against the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena, the Vanderbilt Commodores struggled to shoot the ball all night and fell 61-55 to the Florida Gators. 

On the Commodores’ first possession, guard Maxwell Evans got fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three free throws to put Vanderbilt up 3-0. From there, Florida went on a 8-0 run aided by a three-pointer from guard Noah Locke. The Commodores turned it over four times and missed their first six field goal attempts before forward Matthew Moyer hit a driving floater to cut the Florida lead to 10-5 at the 14:04 mark. It was still a close game at this point, but, according to coach Jerry Stackhouse and his players, the game was lost in these first few minutes. 

“More than anything it was just our [lack of] urgency to start the game,” Stackhouse said of the reasons behind the loss. “I look at that more than anything else that happened. We gave them confidence. A team coming off of three straight losses, their confidence wasn’t high. They got confident because of our soft disposition to start the game.”

The rest of the half was more of the same, as Vanderbilt continued to struggle to find any sort of offensive rhythm and turned the ball over ten times. Fortunately for the Commodores, however, the Gators were also unable to consistently knock down shots. Florida finished the half shooting 34.5 percent compared to Vanderbilt’s 29.2 percent (16.7 percent from three). 

Every time the Commodores brought the Florida lead down to a single possession difference, the Gators countered with a bucket. With 8:31 left in the half, Moyer hit Vanderbilt’s first three-ball of the game to bring the Commodores within three, but Florida’s Keyontae Johnson, who finished with a game-high 20 points, immediately responded with a three-pointer of his own. Again, with 41 seconds remaining in the first half, freshman guard Jordan Wright hit just his fourth three-pointer of the year to bring the Commodores back to within three. That momentum vanished in an instant as Andrew Nembhard, Florida’s starting point guard, patiently bided his time around the perimeter before driving into the lane and converting a tough lay-up shortly before the first half ended. 

By halftime, the Commodores trailed just 26-21, despite their shooting woes. Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. both spent a large chunk of the half on the bench with two fouls apiece, as did Scottie Lewis for the Gators. 

Just as in several previous games, the Commodores started the second half flat. Saben Lee committed turnovers on the first two Vanderbilt possessions, and Florida responded with a Nembhard three-pointer and a Lewis lay-up. The Commodores got their first points of the half on two Pippen Jr. free throws, but the Gators responded with an and-one bucket from Johnson and a transition three from Locke to push their lead to 37-23, forcing coach Stackhouse to call a timeout to stop the bleeding. 

The Commodores did not go down right away, however. Coming out of the timeout, Pippen Jr., who finished with a team-high 15 points, began to make his mark on the game. He went on an individual 6-0 run that featured three tough lay-ups including an and-one opportunity where he missed the free throw. This run, followed by two makes at the charity stripe by Lee, cut the Florida lead to 39-31. 

“He’s really poised,” Florida head coach Mike White said of Pippen Jr. “I really like his pace and his tempo. He’s a very good player who will continue to get better. He understands how to get to the foul line, and he’s hard to stay in front of.”

Vanderbilt had an opportunity to trim the lead even more, but Pippen Jr. missed both free throws after he earned a trip to the line. Then Florida went on a 9-0 run, thanks to three consecutive three-pointers by Locke and Tre Mann, which pushed their lead up to 17. 

Vanderbilt cut the lead back down to 10 with 5:17 remaining, forcing White to call a timeout for Florida. Nembhard hit a midrange jumper out of the timeout for the Gators to push it back to a 12 point lead, but Evans responded with two consecutive threes from the left corner to bring the score to 55-49 with 2:36 remaining. 

Coming out of the media timeout, the Gators executed a well-designed play that led to a three-point make for Locke, who finished the night with 17 points and five three-pointers. Evans missed two tries from deep after that, but Pippen Jr. and Lee both made lay-ups to bring it back to a five point game. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, there was not enough time remaining to continue the run, and they ultimately fell 61-55.

“The most thing I’m disappointed about tonight is how we started the game,” Stackhouse said. “It was a great opportunity for us. We had great momentum from the last game, and then we come out and we were just soft. In so many ways, we were just soft. We’ve got to find a way to get away from that disposition and have a harder, tougher mentality to start the game. Once we do that, we can come out of this funk we’re in.”

The Commodores ended the night shooting just 37.8 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from deep to go along with 17 turnovers. It was a rough offensive night for sure, but Vanderbilt showed resiliency in coming back from multiple double-digit deficits and making it a game in the end after starting so slow at the beginning. 

“If we had started the game out with energy, I feel like we would’ve beat them by 10 points,” Pippen Jr. said.

Vanderbilt will next have a chance to end their 26 game conference losing streak on Wednesday, Feb. 5 when the LSU Tigers come to Memorial Gymnasium.