Vanderbilt took an 11 point lead into halftime against the 15th ranked Bulldogs Saturday night. Four minutes into the second half, they trailed by seven.
The Commodores battled back behind some clutch play to send this one into overtime, then countered with an undoubtedly un-clutch performance to snap a seven-game winning streak and post their first SEC loss of the season. Vanderbilt had three possessions to turn a 77-78 deficit into a game-clinching win, but failed in all three attempts. Brad Tinsley missed a three-pointer as the shot clock wore down, then took an ill-advised drive that ended with a shot that caromed off the front of the rim. Vandy got one more chance when Arnett Moultrie missed a free throw with 3.6 seconds left, but John Jenkins's desperation three was off the mark, clinching the los.
Tinsley's play cemented his status as the guy who wants the ball in his hands in the clutch, but also showcased why he's not ready to be a go-to guy. He's made big shots this season - particularly against Oregon State in the beginning of the season - and even hit a pressure-filled three minutes earlier to tie the game at 71-71. However, his drive to the basket with four seconds left was a showcase of this team's dysfunction in last-shot situations.
As point guard, Tinsley is the fulcrum that almost all plays rest on. When his teammates struggle to get open, the pressure rests on his shoulders to either A) thread a difficult pass to a covered player B) drive to the paint in order to draw a defender inside and create an open pass or C) create his own shot. Against Mississippi State, he chose the third option with John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor on lockdown. This led to Tinsley driving into a double-team and putting up a contested shot that barely got above the level of the rim.
Credit here should go to Mississippi State. They did a great job of covering Vanderbilt's biggest offensive threats and sliding to shut down any passing lanes that Tinsley could have created with the drive. However, the ultimate failure here was pushing forward with a bad shot rather than resetting, regrouping, and using the team's final timeout.
Look, it's great that Tinsley is stepping up for a team that has been devoid of clutch players since Jermaine Beal left. Unfortunately, this hurt the team on Saturday night. With 16 seconds left on the clock and the ability to take the last shot of the game, Vanderbilt left their final timeout on the scoreboard, even after it became clear that they weren't going to be getting the look that they wanted. Instead, Kevin Stallings bet hard on Tinsley, gambling that his senior point guard could make something of the situation. His ill-advised drive was met quickly by defenders in the paint, and Vanderbilt lost their sixth straight overtime game.
It was a disappointing result that validated every Vandy fan's concerns about this team's ability to protect leads. Vanderbilt has three losses against ranked teams this season. All three games featured double-digit Commodore leads in the second half. Those three missed opportunities will weigh heavily against the 'Dores when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee puts together their seedings in March. Even if they finish the season strongly, they'll still have given every pundit in the country enough ammunition to pick against them once the postseason rolls around.
Two other things we learned from Vanderbilt/Mississippi State are after the jump...
Festus Ezeli still isn't there...yet. Ezeli put together his biggest stat line of the season in the overtime loss: 12 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks. However, it's clear that he still hasn't adjusted to the offensive flow of the game and is even having trouble finishing at the basket - where he's usually a beast. Ezeli looked out of his element in the second half - particularly during MSU's 20-2 run - and forced jumpers rather than sticking to his usual program under the rim.
That comfort will come, and it's important to note that the coaching staff continues to suggest that the big Nigerian is still playing at about 75-80 percent of his capacity. On Saturday, his energies were more devoted to the defensive end and dealing with Renardo Sidney's 300-pounds-of-pudding attack. Ezeli did well in that regard, limiting "Thudbutt" to nine points and just one rebound. He showed that this team can lean on him defensively - but he's not ready for double-digit shot attempts just yet.
Vanderbilt: 6-1 on the road, 8-4 at Memorial Gym. The country's best home court advantage is fading in 2011-2012. Vandy has now lost to Cleveland State, Indiana State, Xavier, and Mississippi State on their own floor. This gets even more surprising when you factor in this team's veteran leadership and their familiarity with Ingraham Court, baseline coaching, and the Memorial Maniacs.
So what's different in 2012? It's tough to tell. Whatever it is, it's clear that Memorial Gym has lost a piece of its intimidation factor this season.