Vanderbilt’s two-game finale spoils tournament hopefuls, builds confidence heading into postseason play

For the first time since February 2018, the Commodores are on a win streak. And they enter the SEC tournament in Nashville with confidence at an all-time high.

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Truman McDaniel

Saben Lee throws down a dunk for two of his 19 points in Vanderbilt’s 83-74 win over South Carolina.

Justin Hershey, Deputy Sports Editor

Jerry Stackhouse traveled to Tuscaloosa on March 3 with just six healthy scholarship players. Against Alabama, the Commodores would be missing not only Aaron Nesmith and Clevon Brown, but also Jordan Wright and Matthew Moyer.

They prepared to face a desperate Alabama team with NCAA tournament hopes, and without crucial pieces to their interior defense, it seemed as though the Commodores would be outmatched and go yet another season without an SEC victory on the road. 

Instead, Vanderbilt left Alabama victorious, likely burying the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament chances in the process with a 87-79 win on Senior Night in Tuscaloosa. They added their first SEC road win since March of 2018. And with that, they brought a sliver of joy back home to the city of Nashville, where tornados had wreaked havoc just 24 hours before tip-off.

“If there was ever an opportunity to get a big win for our city, it was today,” Stackhouse said after the game. “We still don’t know what we are going back home to tonight, but for a little while, we can have a moment of feeling good about our city and about ourselves.”

The game featured stellar shooting from the Commodores. As Stackhouse continues to prioritize three point shooting, his team has responded. They shot a season’s best 15-28 (54 percent) from beyond the arc, taking open shots when they were available rather than forcing tough ones.

Forward Dylan Disu had another strong performance on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor where he finished with eight rebounds and helped hold Alabama forwards to a combined 2-13 shooting on the night.

But it was the play of Saben Lee that Commodore fans will remember. Lee has been a constant through thick and thin for this program over the past three years and finally, his patience has culminated in an All-SEC caliber season.

Lee finished with a career high 38 points on 14-20 shooting. He showed his growth both at the free throw line and the three-point line, where he was 4-5 and 6-7 respectively and was every part the leader of the Commodores on Tuesday night. 

Following their return to Nashville, the Commodores prepared for their final regular season game against South Carolina. Similarly to Alabama, the Gamecocks came into the contest with NCAA tournament expectations, having won eight of their previous 12 SEC games, including an absolute beatdown of the Commodores on Jan. 25.

With students still on Spring Break and the devastating presence of tornados across the Nashville area, the Commodores prepared for a quiet Memorial Gymnasium at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.

But once again, Stackhouse had his team ready to play. The Commodores brought their own energy to the contest, igniting the almost 11,000 Vanderbilt faithful and pulling their second straight upset over a hungry Gamecocks team, 83-74.

This time, it wasn’t the three pointers. It wasn’t the shooting at all. The Commodores shot just 6-25 from three point range and 42 percent overall from the field. But Maxwell Evans and company got it done on the defensive end.

The Commodores forced 18 South Carolina turnovers, seven of which came courtesy of steals from Scotty Pippen Jr. and Lee. The Commodores were consistently the first to the floor for loose balls, the aggressors at the rim and the more fundamental team inside.

Offensively, Evans demonstrated his ability to once again be a catalyst by getting the Commodores rolling early with 15 first half points. 

But, it was Pippen Jr. who brought it home for Vanderbilt, nailing 15-16 free throws in the game en route to his game high 21 points. Earlier this season, Pippen Jr. missed crucial free throws against Georgia, resulting in a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer. Just a couple games later, the freshman struggled again at the line against Missouri. He made sure not to let it happen again.

He is now fifth in the SEC in free throws attempted and as the season has worn on, he has shown an increased understanding of how to get himself to the line and more importantly, how to capitalize at the line.

“Just being able to attack, getting mismatches, seeing their bigs, knowing they are going to jump if I pump fake and trying to get contact,” Pippen Jr. said of his high free throw totals. “And knowing we are in the bonus and that I have to keep attacking.”

In the span of a week, the Commodores tripled their SEC win total, burst two NCAA tournament bubbles, began their first SEC winning streak since Feb. 2018 and for a moment, helped the city of Nashville cope with a tragic natural disaster that rocked Middle Tennessee.

They have embraced the role of spoiler, but not because of increased talent. They won by playing as a team and demonstrating growth, poise and effort.

Growth across the board has been evident, but individual players have shown their ability to learn on the fly as well.

Lee has expanded his range, developing into a capable three point shooter. Evans has a rejuvenated confidence on the court while serving as the Commodores spark plug. Disu has become the most important defensive player on the team, manning the paint and stuffing numerous drivers in the process. And the list goes on and on.

Against SMU earlier this season, the Commodores blew a 15-point lead with six minutes to play. With sloppy turnovers, a lack of communication and a failure to execute, Vanderbilt showed their immaturity.

But on Saturday against South Carolina, Scotty Pippen Jr. showed Commodore fans why he is the point guard of the future. Down the stretch, he demanded the ball off of inbound passes, controlled the pace of the game and knocked down his free throws. He played the role of a poised point guard, something he may not have been comfortable doing earlier this season.

Truman McDaniel
Scotty Pippen Jr. steals the ball from Keyshawn Bryant in Vanderbilt’s 83-74 victory over South Carolina.

And finally, the Commodores may have shot well against Alabama, but both of these wins came courtesy of effort. Vanderbilt never quit, despite being eliminated from any postseason contention long ago. They continue to be the quickest to the floor for loose balls, more physical in the post, and play with more passion than their opponents.

And none of this will change as the Commodores enter the SEC tournament. Vanderbilt will face off with a team they lost to earlier this season, the Arkansas Razorbacks at 8:00 p.m. CT in Bridgestone Arena on March 11. 

The Commodores will not make the NCAA Tournament, but there is still plenty of spoiling left to do. Once again, Stackhouse’s group will have nothing to lose. And when you play with nothing to lose, you might just win.

“Let’s go catch white lightning. We are at home, we have all of our fan support. Hopefully everyone is excited about this,” Stackhouse said on Saturday. “Go buy some tickets for the SEC tournament and come out and support us. We want to have a home court advantage.”