Even with a loss early in the tournament, Vanderbilt left the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a signature win over a top ranked team. The Commodores outlasted #8 North Carolina to earn their best out-of-conference win in several years, 72-65 on Sunday. Several different players stepped up to secure the win, including breakout performances from Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne down the stretch.
Jeffery Taylor owned the Tar Heels for the first four minutes of the game, scoring nine points (3-3 shooting with two three-pointers) and adding two impressive blocks on the defensive end. Taylor would cool off, but Vanderbilt did not, hustling out to a 14 point lead late in the opening frame and a 39-29 lead at the half. This advantage wouldn't last, though, as North Carolina used aggressive defense to disrupt Vandy's gameplanning and force a myriad of turnovers. Point guard Brad Tinsley looked lost at times against UNC's full court press, often trying to charge straight through defenders or force bad passes.
The Tar Heels used Vanderbilt's confusion against them, creating turnovers on the perimeter and scoring points in transition. North Carolina came back to take the lead midway through the second half, though it was a hollow accomplishment. The Commodores came back strong, out-hustling their opponents down the court and out-working them on the glass to regain a lead that they wouldn't relinquish. Though UNC kept the game close, Goulbourne essentially shut the door on their comeback with an emphatic put-back dunk to make the score 67-60 with under two minutes to play.
John Jenkins officially led the team in scoring with 16 points, but struggled to find his shot all night and went just 2-10 from the field. Taylor scored 15 and added six boards, four assists, and three blocks in an impressive - though unbalanced - effort. However, the players of the game were Ezeli and Goulbourne, who both played huge roles in the team's victory.
Festus was an offensive force, scoring 15 points and grabbing nine boards in 25 minutes against UNC's stable of highly-touted big men. The big Nigerian even tallied an impressive 5-7 mark from the free throw line. Goulbourne also showcased his ability on the glass, pulling down eight rebounds and making big plays down the stretch, including his highlight reel put-back dunk. The Tar Heels really turned up the defensive pressure on the junior out past the perimeter, and though he occasionally got flustered, Goulbourne took care of the ball well enough to ensure the Commodore victory.
Vanderbilt will head back to Nashville with a 3-1 record and some winnable games against Grambling State and Appalachian State coming up at Memorial Gym. Depending on the results of the Tip-Off's title game, it's possible that this team will climb into the Top 25 rankings, filling some of the void that a freefalling North Carolina team will have left behind. Today's victory was the result of a balanced performance, and many different players contributed to a big win. Even the freshmen got into the act; Kyle Fuller looked more comfortable manning the point against pressure than he had in the past, and Rod Odom was effective in limited minutes.
All in all, a good - but sloppy - win for the Commodores. Coach Kevin Stallings saw a few more weaknesses rear their heads on Sunday, and you can bet that he'll be running the full court press and box-out drills in practice. However, Vandy played well, didn't foul much, and got the most out of their players even if they were having rough games (Jenkins and Andre Walker both fought through bad nights to make key plays). With that, Vanderbilt made a statement that they are a NCAA Tournament team in 2010-2011.