It was the kind of game that made you simultaneously love and hate to be a Vanderbilt fan. The Commodores blew a huge opportunity Wednesday night, falling 82-85 at #11 Missouri in a game that the team had multiple chances to win. Vandy was outhustled on the defensive glass, plagued by unforced turnovers, and choked at the free throw line to give away what could have been a season-defining win.
The game was the most intense of the young season so far, filled with lead changes and fast-paced action. Mizzou stormed out to a pair of early leads, but the Commodores battled back against the Tigers' vaunted "40 minutes of hell" defense. Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor, and Lance Goulbourne created a solid support network to get the ball to halfcourt, and Vandy's offense was able to execute well once the team recovered from early jitters. While turnovers and poor rebounding gave Missouri the lead at the half, it was clear that this one was going to be a dogfight to the end.
Free throws were the team's undoing, as the 'Dores had to rally in overtime to shoot 50 percent in the game. Vandy went 0-4 from the line in last 3:10 of regulation, including a pair of Taylor misses that would have given the team a three point lead with just 26 seconds to play. Missouri got the ball back down by one and missed a jumper, but Ricardo Ratliffe pulled down the offensive rebound - one of the team's 17 - and drew a foul to give the Tigers a chance to take the lead. Ratliffe hit only one, and the game went to overtime after Brad Tinsley's open 25-footer was three inches too long to win the game.
Overtime played out like regulation, with the teams exchanging leads throughout. Vandy trailed 79-80 with a minute to play when a monstrous Festus Ezeli jumper and foul shot combination put the 'Dores up two. Though Missouri would score on the ensuing possession, it appeared that Kevin Stallings's club would have the opportunity to end it on their own terms with the final shot of overtime. However, the Tigers' Marcus Denmon took matters into his own hands, stealing a Tinsley pass as the Commodores were dribbling down the clock and converting a fast break layup on the other end - drawing a foul in the process. Denmon calmly sunk the bonus shot with just 6.6 seconds remaining.
Vanderbilt, despite having a time out, chose not to use one as Tinsley's desperation heave from 28 feet clanked off the rim. The 'Dores walked off the court with a close-but-no-cigar performance, failing to prove their mettle with what would have been the team's biggest road win since last year's upset in Knoxville. It was the type of heartbreaking loss that seems to haunt the boys in black and gold at least once a year.
However, it wasn't all bad for Vandy. Festus Ezeli took another step forward in his ongoing breakout season. The junior center's free throw shooting regressed in Columbia's hostile environment, but he was a disruptive force in the paint on both offense and defense. He finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and six blocks in what was a game that is sure to pop up on his highlight reel after the season. Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins both turned in solid performances as well, as Taylor used his athleticism to create shots while Jenkins used his shooting to burn Mizzou's press defense. The pair combined for 41 points and defended well throughout the game. Lance Goulbourne also had a big night in his first ever collegiate start. Andre Walker's replacement put up an 11 point, seven rebound, five assist performance while turning the ball over just twice.
It was a tough loss for Vanderbilt, but the team and its fans can take solace in the fact that the problems that plagued the team are all fixable. The 'Dores didn't lose this game because of a lack of talent or coaching, they lost because of a lack of focus and control. Mental issues plagued this team, from Ezeli's free throws to Taylor's issues with running and dribbling at the same time. In the end the team made one mistake too many, and a good Missouri squad made them pay. Despite the outcome, the Commodore players stand to gain from this loss.