The Commodores made a valiant comeback, but in the end Rod Odom's tying three-point attempt clanged off the rim and Vanderbilt walked off the court on the wrong end of a 74-71 loss. However, just like yesterday's 10 point win against Nebraska, the final score barely begins to tell the story of the game. Vandy fought off another sluggish start - and both teams fought off some incompetent refereeing - only to fall short against the talented Mountaineers.
Vanderbilt held tough despite some early setbacks and whistle-happy referees that handcuffed the quality of play from the outset of the game. Anything remotely resembling a foul was called, and Kevin Stallings's squad was soon without stars Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli, who picked up quick questionable fouls and spent much of the first half on the bench. Ezeli and Andre Walker had two fouls apiece in the game's first three minutes, retiring the team's starting frontcourt and giving West Virginia the chance to open up a sizable lead early in the first half. WVU took 24 trips to the free throw line in the first 20 minutes. Conversely, Vanderbilt took seven.
The Mountaineers took advantage of Vandy's problems to open a pair of double-digit leads in the frame. Only Brad Tinsley's three-pointer at the buzzer kept the Commodores from heading to the locker room down 14 points. Neither team came out of the break on fire, as they would combine for just two field goals - both from Vandy - in the first eight minutes of the second half.
This half saw the terrible reffing spread to both sides of the court, as each team was called for an unusually high share of questionable calls. Light contact, hand checking, and intense stares were all whistled by the refs, ensuring that players and fans of both teams would leave today's game frustrated. Vanderbilt eventually lost Ezeli and Taylor to fouls, while every player on West Virginia's roster ended the game with no fewer than two fouls. This grinding pace dictated by the referees benefitted the Commodores, who tied the game at 54 on a Rod Odom layup with nine minutes to play. Unfortunately, Bob Huggins and his team responded well, reeling off a 9-0 run in a sequence that seemed to put WVU in control.
Vandy battled back on the strength of John Jenkins, who almost single-handedly shot the team back into the game. Jenkins scored 11 straight points to tie the game at 68, though a string of missed free throws by Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne stripped the team of needed points. WVU held the ball with the opportunity for the last shot, and Casey Mitchell left no doubt, draining a huge three to finish off the day's scoring. Vandy's final play went to Odom after Jenkins couldn't get open, and he couldn't convert on a deep shot, giving West Virginia the win and a chance to play for the tournament title on Sunday.
The loss stings, but it's far from a total shipwreck the Commodores. The positives hinge on their ability to play tough even without Jenkins's running mate Jeffery Taylor. Taylor was a target of the refs all day and picked up five fouls in just 14 minutes - including three in just 2:08 of game time midway through the first half. However, his absence allowed for Jenkins to show off his leadership capabilities and gave Rod Odom the chance to shine against an NCAA Tournament caliber team in Puerto Rico. Odom was an efficient scorer in the first half in Taylor's absence, going 4-5 from the field for nine points off the bench. He finished with 11 points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
The real story here is Jenkins's leadership. The sophomore gunner never said die, and never passed on an opportunity to shoot his team back into the game. After West Virginia opened up a 10 point lead late in the second half, it was Jenkins's 11 straight points that put the 'Dores in the position to win the game. With the pressure on, he put the team on his back and nearly willed them to the victory in a game that looked like it would be a Mountaineer blowout on more than one occasion.
In the end, it was the Commodores' first loss of the season, and it will provide Coach Stallings with a lot of areas to work on in practice over the next few weeks. However, Vandy fans have to be encouraged by how the team played despite the foul troubles of Taylor and Ezeli. Commenter Jason Fukuda made a very strong argument about Jenkins's role as the leader and top scoring threat for this team during the preseason (scroll down to the comments), and so far it looks like his predictions will come true. The team also got some strong rebounding from the Festus-Steve-Lance trio in the frontcourt, and contributions from true freshmen Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom.
Despite the loss, the team showed a wide capability for growth. More importantly, Jenkins displayed the heart of a champion. Coming off the loss of Jermaine Beal to graduation, the biggest question this team had to address was where their motor and swagger were going to come from. Today's setback showed that the team has a pretty good candidate to take over - and he wears number 23.