Vanderbilt slips past Valparaiso in season opener 77-71

Despite first half sloppiness, Scotty Pippen Jr. and Max Evans willed the Commodores to a season-opening victory on Friday.

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Scotty Pippen Jr. scored a career high 25 points in the Commodores season opening win. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel).

Justin Hershey, Lead Sports Analyst

Year two of the Stackhouse era began quietly on Friday as the Commodores (1-0) squeaked past Valparaiso (0-1) 77-71 in front of an empty Memorial Gymnasium.

The lack of energy inside the historic venue clearly got to both teams, as the first half was a sloppy one for both the Commodores and Crusaders. The teams combined for 17 turnovers in the first half, looking the part of two teams who have not played yet this season.

“We have to find a way to create our own enthusiasm. Without having fans there, it is important that our bench is engaged and loud,” Stackhouse said after the win. “We can’t just be sitting over there wondering when I’ll get in the game. We have to create our own enthusiasm, and hopefully, we will be better with that than we were tonight.”

But it was the Commodores who jumped on the Crusaders early with stingy defense. The interior presence of Quentin Millora-Brown alongside Dylan Disu forced difficult passes for driving Valparaiso guards, and the Commodores generated four turnovers in the first eight minutes.

Five early points for Scotty Pippen Jr. helped Stackhouse’s team maintain an early lead, but a lack of off-the-dribble penetration held the Commodore offense largely in check in the first half. Vanderbilt shot just 38.5% in the first and it wasn’t until the reserves checked in that their offense showed any sign of life.

Freshmen Myles Stute and Issac McBride entered the game midway through the first half and proceeded to knock down back-to-back three-pointers. 

McBride, a transfer from Kansas, showed an ability to shoot off the dribble from just about anywhere on the floor. He finished the half with seven points by hitting a three-ball and getting to the free-throw line on two separate occasions. Stackhouse ran multiple sets for Stute, who promptly ran off a pair of screens to bury his first collegiate points and help keep the Commodores with the Crusaders.

As the half progressed, Valparaiso quickly caught fire from three-point range. Despite the solid interior defense from Clevon Brown and Millora-Brown, the Commodores perimeter defense struggled. Valparaiso nailed seven first-half three-pointers, including three straight to tie the game at 34 entering the half.

“They had shooting bigs,” Stackhouse said. “Those guys stepped up and made some shots over some contested hands. We just want to contest a little harder.”

Vanderbilt had no answer for Valparaiso forward Mileek McMillian, as he scored 13 quick points in the first half thanks to three three-pointers.

A scoreless first half for DJ Harvey and just a single point for Dylan Disu prevented Vanderbilt from gaining any sort of momentum, and that trend continued until Harvey nailed a three-pointer from the far corner four minutes into the second half. 

After Valparaiso’s Ben Krikke finished two layups over Commodore defenders, Harvey kept Vanderbilt afloat with his first points in the black and gold.

After a couple of forced turnovers, the Commodores built some momentum. Dylan Disu finished at the rim twice, and Scotty Pippen Jr. had a beautiful finish to put Vanderbilt up five.

Disu and Harvey struggled most of the night for Vanderbilt and were uncharacteristically passive. The Commodores’ starting wings shot just 5-14 from the field and combined for only 14 points.

“The way that he has played and the way that he has been, I would not have imagined that Dylan Disu would have only six points tonight,” Stackhouse said. “[DJ] was wanting to do some good things, but a couple bad things happened. Then he started thinking about it and started pressing a little bit. I think those guys will settle down now that they have a game under their belt.”

Despite the Commodores’ early second-half momentum, the Crusaders did not go away. A quick 12-1 run lead by Ben Krikke and Mileek McMillan gave Valparaiso a 55-50 lead with just 11 minutes remaining. All night, the Commodores suffered from defensive breakdowns that yielded wide open Crusader three-pointers. Miscommunications, offensive rebounds and late rotations plagued Stackhouse’s team and helped Valparaiso make 11 three-pointers on the night. 

The Crusaders continued using an extended 2-3 zone to limit the Commodores’ interior production. Vanderbilt had no answer for its extended nature, and for much of the night, the offense appeared stagnant. Scotty Pippen Jr. was the only Commodore capable of penetrating the Crusaders’ zone, as he led the way for Vanderbilt with a career-high 25 points on the night.

“Every game I look to attack,” Pippen Jr. said after his big performance. “I pride myself on being a leader both vocally and on the court for this team. I look forward to that role.”

For much of the second half, Stackhouse watched from the sidelines as his team hoisted deep three-pointer after deep three-pointer and continued turning the ball over. The sloppiness of the game played right into Valparaiso’s hands, and the Crusaders continued feeding off the Commodores unforced errors.

But with six minutes remaining, Pippen Jr. checked back into the game and, alongside Max Evans, willed the Commodores to victory. By viciously attacking downhill, he was able to garner consecutive trips to the free-throw line and followed up four made free throws with a quick steal and lay-in to boost the Commodores’ lead to six.

Curiously, the Crusaders abandoned their 2-3 zone, and that was all Vanderbilt needed to put this one away. After an Evans three off a beautiful cross court pass from Pippen Jr. and a nifty turnaround jumper from Harvey, the Commodores took a commanding nine-point lead with 1:30 to play. 

The play of Pippen Jr. and Evans was just enough to push Vanderbilt to victory. Despite 19 turnovers from his team, Stackhouse’s starting backcourt combined for 41 points and looked the part of a dominant SEC backcourt. 

Alternatively, the Commodores starting frontcourt combined for just 14 points and registered six turnovers. Despite Harvey’s struggles, Vanderbilt still outscored Valparaiso by 17 points when he was on the floor. Quentin Millora-Brown played just 10 minutes and failed to score a bucket in his Vanderbilt debut.

The Commodores will now travel to Bubbleville at the Mohegan Sun to face off against Connecticut in the semifinal of the Legends Classic on Dec. 1.