Vanderbilt loses first half lead, falls to Kentucky at Rupp Arena

Photo by Hunter Long

LEXINGTON, KY — Still in pursuit of their first SEC victory, the Vanderbilt Commodores traveled to the Bluegrass State on Saturday to take on the Kentucky Wildcats.

Unfortunately, Commodore faithful couldn’t expect a win against the 18th
ranked Wildcats; for if Vanderbilt wanted to run away with the monumental upset, they’d have to make some magic work on the road.

The magic seemed to be there from the start, as the Commodores came out swinging, but it didn’t extend past the first half. Vanderbilt ended up with another SEC loss, losing 56-47 despite some promising play early on.

Just five minutes through the game, Vanderbilt jumped out to a 12-point lead, powered by quick threes from Matt Ryan, Joe Toye, and Aaron Nesmith.

Vanderbilt Plays Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, January 12, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Furthermore, the first ten minutes of game time featured six scorers for the Commodores alone. They kept the Wildcats on their toes defensively, which allowed Vanderbilt to jump out to an early lead.

That same intensity, however, didn’t translate as well to the defensive side. As a result, the first half lead quickly decreased to just three. This would be the story of the first half; the two teams were neck and neck, scoring back and forth, to keep this game within three points.

When the first half eventually drew to an end, the score was just 30 to 28 in favor of Vanderbilt. Both teams were playing with a sense of ferocity and animation that saw players diving for loose balls, getting in scrums in the process, and fighting to corral each rebound as if it were March.

The Commodores 30 first half points was driven by seven from both Nesmith and Toye, respectively, and a whopping 15 points that came as a result of three pointers.

Some of the most telling statistics of the first half, however, showed just how close of a game it was: The Commodores were shooting 50% from the field, compared to the Wildcats 48%, and 43% from the free throw line, slightly worse than the wildcats 50%. Similarly, Vanderbilt’s seven turnovers matched the Wildcats’ seven, while their three blocks and two steals rivaled Kentucky’s two blocks and three steals.

Vanderbilt Plays Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, January 12, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Long)

“I was really proud. In the first half, we controlled the pace,” said head coach Bryce Drew. “We had a lead going in, we knew those first four minutes of the second half were going to be crucial. Unfortunately, they went on a 7-0 run to start and we just couldn’t catch up after that.”

The start of the second half, as Drew alluded to in the postgame press conference, was not nearly as close.

After a quick turnover by Kentucky, Vanderbilt failed to capitalize. Two missed threes by Nesmith and a missed layup by Lee ensued, allowing Kentucky to gain control of the game.

The second half was hardly underway, but Vanderbilt’s failure to convert on open looks gifted Kentucky a seven-point run, along with a five-point lead.

It didn’t end there.

The Commodores just couldn’t seem to get any momentum going on the offensive side of the floor. Through eight minutes, the Commodores were suffering from a 22% field goal percentage in the half; in fact Saben Lee, Simi Shittu, Nesmith, and Ryan had shot for a combined 0-6. The abysmal shooting in the beginning of the second, in conjunction with two turnovers, and allowing Kentucky to shoot 60% from the field was not a light toll to pay; the Commodores, up by as much as 12 in the first half, were now down by seven.

Vanderbilt Plays Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday, January 12, 2019. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Perhaps the biggest story of this game centered around Vanderbilt’s ability to shoot from beyond the arc. In the first half, they shot 45.5% from three-point range, which contributed 15 of their 30 points.

The second half was a completely different story.

Just as they’ve dealt with in other SEC matchups, nothing seemed to fall in the second half, yet they kept heaving. Vanderbilt’s second half three-point percentage was just 14.3%.

“We got the open looks we wanted and we practice shooting every day,” said Nesmith. “As a team, I know we can shoot better. I know I can shoot better. Winning players make winning plays, so as the season goes on, we’ll make those shots. I’m not too worried.”

Ultimately, Vanderbilt’s pitfalls in this game drew close comparisons to recent, yet forgettable, events: in addition to their three-point woes, they shot just 50% from the line.

“That’s another concern,” Drew said. “You can believe me when I say we’ve addressed [free throws] in practice and we’ve substituted a lot of practice time ongoing for the last six weeks, when we lost a game early in the year because of free throws. As a coach, you just continue to practice it, try to practice it in different ways, and again that’s another line that’s been an Achilles heel for us. It’s cost us some games and we’ve got to shoot better from the line.”

Vanderbilt has struggled to play two halves since the start of SEC play. Regardless of how well they may play in the first half, the second half always features a steep decline in intensity. This time, it got the best of them.

The Commodores head back home for a quick break before their next game. They will face off against the University of South Carolina at Memorial on Wednesday night, still seeking their first SEC win.

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