The Commodores swept aside any lingering feelings of doubt Wednesday night, coming back from a league opening loss to South Carolina to beat a tough Georgia squad 73-66. Solid performances across the starting lineup sparked the team to a victory where the Bulldogs rarely threatened in the second half. However, some sloppy plays and suspect shot selection gave Vandy fans reason to be nervous heading into the team's second biggest showdown of the year against a Bruce Pearl-less Tennessee in Knoxville.
The win showed off both the team's strengths and flaws, as Festus Ezeli rebounded to put what seemed like Georgia's entire team in foul trouble and John Jenkins showed off his diverse array of insane long-range shots. That foul trouble was eventually what swung the game for the 'Dores, since the team's ability to set up plays and find open men failed them all night. Vanderbilt had just eight assists - only two from point guards - compared to 15 turnovers. If it weren't for foul shots bailing this team out and stemming UGA's momentum, this game could have turned ugly.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs couldn't sustain their early Ellington-esque pace, and Coach Kevin Stallings and his squad wisely attacked Georgia's big men to set up a major advantage for the 'Dores from the stripe. This strategy paid off with a win, but it may need some tweaking for the team's eventual trip to Athens for the rematch. If Vanderbilt can't get the calls down low against a talented UGA team, they'll have a much tougher night in store for them.
What else did we learn from Wednesday's game? Let's take a look:
1. So this is what it's like when (almost) everything is clicking. The Commodores got their first truly balanced game from the team's big three of Ezeli, Jenkins, and Jeffery Taylor, as each player showed up to contribute. Ezeli's post play, Jenkins's shooting, and Taylor's ability to score from anywhere (including on SICK inbounds plays) were the biggest factors in the team's win. Lance Goulbourne, starting in Andre Walker's place, continued to show off his rebounding prowess, pulling down 10 boards in 33 minutes and being everywhere the 'Dores needed him on the defensive glass. Brad Tinsley, despite an uncharacteristic lack of assists, let the offense come to him and made his nine points look easy.
This is the kind of performance the team needs from their starting cast to win SEC games. Only two guys showed up against South Carolina, and that weakness allowed the Gamecocks to erase a double-digit deficit and send Vanderbilt packing. Georgia threatened to come back several times in the game, often cutting VU leads to six points or less, but the team's balanced attack just kept scoring, refusing to let the Bulldogs gain a head of steam and pull the upset.
2. Festus Ezeli's confidence wasn't shaken in Columbia. Ezeli had a terrible game last week when he was matched up against Sam Muldrow, and often found his post moves impeded by a 6'9" Gamecock in front of the rim. Given Fes's limited past as a starter, it was safe to question his ability to bounce back, especially with a reserved array of plays in the paint that he could turn to. However, the redshirt junior laid any doubt to rest once he got the ball on the block.
Ezeli wasn't just active in the paint - he owned it. Spin moves, baby hooks, posting up - you name it, he did it against Georgia's unheralded big men. "Big Fes" not only scored efficiently, but he almost singlehandedly put UGA's frontcourt in foul trouble. It was a huge bounce-back game for the team's number one option in the interior, and it should give him a huge confidence boost going into Saturday's showdown in Knoxville.
3. Let's hope that this team doesn't have any more games that are decided in the final minute this season. Does this count as a thing we've learned if it's something we've seen all season? The Commodores bungled the final 60 seconds of both halves, and were fortunate that the Bulldogs couldn't take advantage of it. The first half ended with John Jenkins hoisting a contested 28-footer with six seconds left on the clock - enough time for Georgia to pull down the rebound and get a shot off themselves. Despite being one of the team's better last-second shots, it still failed, though UGA was unable to capitalize.
The real problems came in the final minute of the game, where Vanderbilt turned the ball over three times and missed both free throw attempts when they actually did hold on to the ball. With Vandy up by nine, the Bulldogs had six scoring opportunities over the last 73 seconds - but fortunately only converted one. The 'Dores got to the line once, but that was it. It didn't make a difference in this game, but a better-shooting team could have exploited these flaws and ripped another win out of this team's hands in the waning seconds of the game. There's no doubt CKS will be making end-of-game drills an important part of this week's practices as a result.