The final score suggests an 11 point blowout, but anyone who watched Saturday's game against Georgia knows that the Commodores were only a few steps from self destruction. Vanderbilt was unable to open up a significant lead against the Bulldogs and things looked grim when Jeffery Taylor's technical foul with 1:19 left to go gave a hungry 'Dawg team two free throws AND the ensuing possession.
In past years, this is where Vanderbilt would have crumbled. On Saturday, it led to a double-digit victory. Was the turnaround a circumstance of Vandy's maturation in the middle of a trying season? Or was Georgia's shot selection just so bad that the 'Dores were never truly in danger of letting this one slip away?
In reality, it was probably a combination of the two. The Bulldogs squandered opportunities towards the end of the game, failing to score after Dustin Ware's technical free throws thanks to some terrible three-point looks. However, the way the Commodores handled themselves in the final five minutes of regulation seemed to suggest that one of the SEC's most experienced teams is finally playing like a veteran squad.
Taylor's idiotic technical foul (and Lance Goulbourne's failed experiment as point guard against the press) aside, the Commodores did everything they needed to in order to close out a needed victory on their home court. They rebounded well and limited Georgia's second chances in order to stem the momentum of a potential upset. They defended at the perimeter and forced a young team into bad shots. They closed out the game by holding onto the ball and making their free throws.
The biggest positive to come out of that game-winning stretch was the play of Vanderbilt's big men when the Commodores needed them the most. Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne were there to bail the team out on three straight possessions after missed shots. Their offensive rebounding was the key in stretching a 63-60 lead into an insurmountable eight-point advantage. More importantly, none of their big rebounds were the product of lucky positioning or crazy caroms. Ezeli and Goulbourne earned extra possessions by fighting for the ball in the paint and outgrinding their opponents.
On Saturday, their presence made the difference for the Commodores. They may have only combined for 19 points and eight rebounds, but the team's big man duo was the engine that drove this team past a potential UGA upset. For a Vanderbilt squad that has been the opposite of clutch in the past two-and-a-half seasons, this is a major development. Opponents in 2010-2011 only had to glue a defender to John Jenkins on the perimeter to shut down Kevin Stallings's offense in the final two minutes of a close game. The emergence of Goulbourne and a still-hobbled Ezeli suggest that this team won't be as helpless in crunch time as they were last season.
Of course, these expectations need to be tempered a bit. This inspiring win came against a team that's barely over .500 on the season (9-8). Georgia also only has one regular rotation player that stands taller than 6'7". For Vanderbilt to really shake the demons of the last-minute failures of the past, they'll need to prove that they can handle the onslaught of one of the NCAA's top teams. Wins this week against Alabama and Mississippi State, while not monumental, would certainly help prove that.
Vanderbilt rose to a win Saturday through offensive rebounding and solid free throw shooting, two things that needed improvement heading into SEC play. That wasn't the only area that the 'Dores showed a marked improvement in. Vandy's bench came up big when it came to protecting and even extending leads, showing off a developing dimension of this team's talent.
Coach Kevin Stallings put together strong rotations that took advantage of Georgia's weaknesses, and his bench did not disappoint. Rod Odom, Steve Tchiengang, Dai-Jon Parker, and Kedren Johnson all produced as the team's key reserves, combining for 15 points and some solid +/- numbers. No bench player had a +/- figure lower than +4 for the day.
Tchiengang has stepped up as the team's leader off the bench, and his rebounding has allowed Odom to slide back to his more natural spot at small forward for longer minutes. The result has been a more confident core of players and some serious signs of maturation from freshmen like Parker and Johnson. There's still lots of room to grow, but Saturday's performance against the Bulldogs was encouraging, to say the least.
Part of this newfound energy may be traced back to what has been a reinvigorated crowd at Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt boasts one of the biggest home court advantages in all of college basketball, but you wouldn't have known it after the 'Dores started the season 3-3 at home.
The combination of Vandy's six-game winning streak, along with the return of students from winter break, have pumped the life back into the arena. Reports suggested that the crowd was the rowdiest it had been since the team's season opener against Oregon. Stallings and his team will need that energy to rise even further for upcoming games against Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Tennessee State. All will provide big tests for the Commodores, and a loss to either in-state rival could be all it takes to let some of the air out of Vanderbilt's famous concert-hall-slash-basketball-court.
Saturday's win was a big one for the Commodores - not because of who it was against, but how they did it. Their strong play down the stretch helped erase some of the doubts that had become commonplace for Vandy fans over the past three seasons. The team is rebounding well, scoring easy points as a result, and getting strong contributions from their bench. If they can keep this up, they'll be the team everyone hoped they could be when the season began - but we won't know that until they face the best the SEC has to offer.