A win is a win, but the final two minutes of Vanderbilt's victory over Davidson were goddamn terrifying if you were a Commodore fan.
If you missed it, you missed watching the 'Dores nearly squander an 18-point lead with under eight minutes to play. Vanderbilt led by as many as 10 points inside the two-minute mark, but still needed clutch free throws, Davidson mistakes, and a terrific effort from Festus Ezeli to hold off the upset-minded Wildcats.
Vandy left Belk Arena with the win, but it wasn't a terribly reassuring one. The way I see it, there are two ways to break down the Commodores' sixth victory of the season. They cover both ends of the panicking fan spectrum:
1. This team can't hold momentum or produce in the final two minutes of games.
Last night marked the third time in three games that the Commodores allowed a team to make a double-digit run against them late in the second half. Vanderbilt's ability to extend leads (or in the case of the Cleveland State game, close gaps) early in the second frame is impressive. In each game, the 'Dores have been able to capitalize on opponents' sloppiness, move well without the ball, and score efficiently from both outside and in the paint. This has opened up big leads against almost every good team the Commodores have faced.
Then, right around the final media timeout, they lose it. The offense goes cold. The momentum shifts. Vanderbilt's turnovers become deficit-closing points for the other team. Vandy's ability to pressure the ball on defense and get open on offense dissipates completely. Fans are treated to 30 seconds of stalling and then a forced two-pointer from 20 feet out.
Though fouls played a big role in Vanderbilt's collapse last night, they shouldn't even have been an issue after staking an 18 point lead with under eight minutes to play. Jeffery Taylor had a career night but still faded down the stretch thanks to foul trouble. John Jenkins put up 22 points but seemed to have a terribly quiet second half. A better team than Davidson would have delivered a soul-crushing blow to an already-reeling team. Vandy was lucky to escape with a win like they did.
2. This team just needed Festus Ezeli to put them over the hump; if he were healthy against Xavier and Louisville last week, Vanderbilt wins those games.
Ezeli showed just how much he means to this team - both offensively and defensively - last night. When Vanderbilt's offense broke down, he was the safety valve in the middle. His presence was the primary reason why Vandy was in the bonus with 12 minutes left to play last night. His ability to clean up bad shots on the offensive glass kept drives alive and gave the team a chance to erase some bad possessions.
His tip-in with 45 seconds to go was the huge, clutch play that this team lacked in losses to Xavier and Louisville. Ezeli's impact is the extra basket that would have carried this team to wins instead of a pair of overtime losses. Even at 75 percent, he showed that he can be the difference between winning and losing for this squad. When Vanderbilt breaks down, Ezeli's abilities in the post are the glue that pieces the team back together.
Now, there are several degrees of flexibility between these two sentiments. Ezeli is not the panacea that this team has been looking for. The Commodores need to flesh out their depth, defend for all 40 minutes, and work on their off-the-ball movement to create more efficient shots. However, Ezeli is a huge part of all three of these tenets.
Ezeli's presence as a healthy starter restores the balance in several ways for Vanderbilt. He moves Steve Tchiengang to the bench, where Stevie Thunder can be a devastating force as a mashing big man who can step out and hit the three. He puts together a strong 6-8 rotation that includes Rod Odom (slowly regaining his stride and playing better when he's not being counted on to fill minutes at the 4) and Kedren Johnson. His defense in the paint is second-to-none in the NCAA. His ability to push opponents around near the rim gives the team a safety valve who can pull down tough entry passes and finish at the basket.
He can't mask all the troubles that this team has had in the first nine games of the season, though. The team still struggled to defend quick cuts and gave up too many easy baskets at the rim. Despite being bigger than the Wildcats across the board, the rebounding numbers last night were just about even. And, above all else, this team still pissed away a big lead late in the second half. That's troubling.
So which way is the right way to look at last night's win? It's a little of both, but the second option is going to get stronger and stronger as Ezeli rounds back into shape. Though allowing a 15 point comeback dulled the shine of a solid win, Commodore fans and pundits alike got to see flashes of why this was considered a Final Four pick in the preseason. As Festus plays more, those flashes will extend into longer and longer stretches. Will this team be able to put together a truly dominant 40 minutes of play? It's tough to tell - but with Ezeli in the mix, the odds increase significantly.