Everything was set up to end like a fairy tale. Down by two, Vanderbilt held the ball after Wisconsin missed the front end of a one-and-one late in the game. John Jenkins sprung loose behind the three-point line, collected the ball, and did what he does best - put up a high-arcing rainbow towards the net.
It was exactly the look this team wanted. If you were to choose one man to take that shot that would erase the demons of five years of NCAA Tournament failures, Jenkins was the guy you would turn to. After seasons of watching him struggle through late-game double coverage and having players like Brad Tinsley and Jeffery Taylor hoist up bad jumpers as the clock wound down, the junior had the ball and an open look with the game on the line. Vanderbilt was finally going to get its clutch moment from John Jenkins.
Except his shot didn't go in. Festus Ezeli stood underneath the basket, just in case, but was hooked by two Badger players in the paint. No whistle. Wisconsin ball. One failed Hail Mary pass later, Vanderbilt's season was over.
The most talented team to ever call Memorial Gym home had run out of games to play.
It was a disappointing end to a roller coaster season that featured some of the most liked players in Commodore history. However, it would be completely unfair to put the blame on Jenkins and his missed shot. The great thing about these players is that they pulled themselves together as a team when it counted the most. When they defeated #1 Kentucky for the SEC title, it took key contributions from every player. When they ran past Harvard to post their first NCAA Tournament win, role players like Brad Tinsley and Rod Odom stepped up behind the team's "big three" to avoid another upset in the first round.
In the long run, last Saturday's loss will go down as a team effort as well. The team struggled with the opportunities that Wisconsin gave them all night, and missed layups and offensive fouls gave the Badgers the window they needed to hold the lead for the majority of the game. The Commodores were slow to adapt, but still had the chance to pull out the win against UW's balanced attack.
Vanderbilt's late-game zone defense did exactly what it was supposed to do. The Commodores pressured Wisconsin into the deep shots that transformed a nine-point deficit into a one-point lead late in the game. However, Ben Brust and Jordan Taylor stepped up in a huge way to make Vandy pay. Taylor's three - against double coverage, three feet behind the three-point line, and with precious seconds left on the shot clock - was the defining play of Saturday's game. The senior point guard did exactly what Kevin Stallings hoped he would do, but great players make great plays. Jordan Taylor is a great player.
The silver lining lies in a banner that will be raised to the rafters this fall. Vandy earned their first SEC Tournament title in 61 years and seemingly exorcised the demons that had haunted this team under Kevin Stallings and several coaches before him. The Commodores finally got a shining moment from a group of seniors that was one of the most beloved to ever play in Memorial Gym. While they may not have earned a return trip to the Sweet Sixteen, you can argue that a SEC Championship banner is more meaningful than anything less than a Final Four run.
This was a good season for Vanderbilt basketball. Unfortunately, it wasn't the great one that everyone expected. However, this team won't be remembered for whatever happened in the final seconds of their game against Wisconsin. They'll be remembered for Jeffery Taylor's emergence as a three point shooter, or for Festus Ezeli's rim-bending dunks. 2012 will be the year of another upset over a top-ranked team, a SEC Championship, and another scoring title for John Jenkins. It will be the season where Lance Goulbourne became a top defender, Kedren Johnson showed flashes of brilliance, and Brad Tinsley fluctuated from "underrated" to "overrated" so many times that we're still not sure what to think of him.
Did the ending suck? Sure. But that can't overwrite the narrative of what was a very special team in Nashville. Taylor, Ezeli, Jenkins, Goulbourne, Tinsley, and Steve Tchiengang all changed the definition of what it means to be a Commodore and what it means to be a Commodore fan. It was a great ride and ultimately a rewarding one - no matter the outcome.
They're the reason why we care, and the reason why it's so good to be gold. These losses and early endings wouldn't mean anything without the emotional investment that a core of young athletes cultivated amongst a fanbase desperate for something positive to cheer for. On that front, they delivered in spades.