Commodores lock down on defense, knock off No. 21 South Carolina

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Ziyi Liu

Timeout celebration as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

Elias Ukule

The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team is known for its prolific three-point shooting, but it showed it can turn to other weapons in its gutty 71-62 win over No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday. For the Commodores, it was a big win against a nationally ranked opponent that brings them to the .500 in conference play at 7-7 and 14-13 overall.

For South Carolina, this loss means it lost further ground at the top of the SEC, after Kentucky’s win earlier. This was despite the production from senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, a leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year, who finished the game with 21 points, with teammates Chris Silva and PJ Dozier joining him in double-digit scoring.

South Carolina came into the game as the top team in the country in defending the three-point line, holding its opponents to 28.1 percent shooting, and Vanderbilt as the top three-point shooting team in the SEC at 38.3 percent.

The Gamecocks came out with strong defense out of the gate, pressing the three-point line and closing out on shooters. This kept the Commodores from registering any points until just over the 16-minute mark, with a free-throw by Clevon Brown. In fact, neither team could score for the first two minutes, making for a low-scoring affair.

The nation’s leading three-point defensive team held Vanderbilt to only two makes from downtown in the first half, both by Mathew Fisher-Davis. With South Carolina taking away the three-point line, the Commodores found lanes to drive to the basket. Senior transfer Nolan Cressler took full advantage, exploding for a series of impressive drives into the heart of the defense to keep Vanderbilt in the game.

“He’s very good at attacking the rim, and very crafty around the rim,” said Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew of Cressler.

Despite the fact that its usual potency from beyond the arc was missing, Vanderbilt stayed in the game by going to the charity stripe, where it leads the SEC in free-throw percentage.

In fact, foul calls dominated the first half, with a total of 22 fouls called by the time the teams headed into the locker rooms. The fans’ frustration with the sheer volume of foul calls were palpable in Memorial Gym, with boos echoing throughout.

“I thought the crowd was sensational,” said Drew. “They [the players] fed off the energy, especially in the second half.”

The ‘Dores played with good intensity on the defensive end, holding the Gamecocks scoreless from downtown for the first half. Brown came off the bench to register three blocks, with Payton Willis deflecting balls as well. The majority of the points for the Gamecocks, then, came from mid-range jumpers and inside buckets.

“We really locked in,” LaChance said of the Commodore defense. “We did a good job of shutting down Thornwell toward the end.”

The driving lanes continued to present themselves in the second half as Joe Toye and LaChance got buckets. When South Carolina made the adjustment to close out, Vanderbilt started heating up from outside, with LaChance making his first three of the game in the second half.

More players joined Fisher-Davis and LaChance in the three-point party as Cressler and Luke Kornet made a couple from downtown as well. After only making two three-pointers in the first half, the Commodores returned to their calling card, making seven threes in the second.

With the Commodores nursing a narrow lead late in the second half, South Carolina went to the press. However, Vanderbilt was able to come out of the press to bring the ball up into the half court.

The crowd’s frustration with the game’s officiating continued in the second half, following questionable fouls and no-calls. The number of fouls was equally large in the second, bringing the game total to 44 fouls.

With the final buzzer approaching, Vanderbilt was able to grow its lead and pull away. LaChance made a contested three-pointer with just over three minutes remaining to bring the lead up to six points. But the late-game struggles this season meant that the Gamecocks could still come back. Moreover, Kornet was on the floor but was in foul trouble, having picked up his fourth.

By the time the two minute mark arrived, the Commodores had grown the lead to double digits, leading by 10 points. In the end, a couple of made free throws from Jeff Roberson sealed the deal.