On Sunday, Vanderbilt won the SEC Tournament title. With that, they completed step one of validating their seniors' decision to stick around for 2012.
Last spring, few people expected Vandy's top three players to all return to Nashville for another run at postseason success. Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, and John Jenkins had just come off a bitter NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond. The frustration around West End was at an all-time high. All three players were considered fringe first-round picks in a relatively weak draft class. Surely, at least one of Vanderbilt's core players would take a shot at a guaranteed payday and a NBA roster spot, right?
It wouldn't have been unheard of. A year before, the team watched A.J. Ogilvy bypass his final year of eligibility in order to get back to the international game that he preferred. Taylor and Ezeli, as juniors, even had a penalty-free option to declare for the draft and then return to school if they didn't like their options, so long as they didn't hire an agent.
When April came around, no one jumped. The opportunity came and went. All three players announced that they'd be staying at Vanderbilt for one more run. In fact, they announced it together.
On Sunday, it was those three players that lifted this team to the conference title. The Commodores finally got a big-stage performance where their stars came together to create a force stronger than their individual contributions. When Ezeli went to the bench, Taylor and Jenkins stepped up. When Jenkins went cold in the second half, Taylor picked up the slack by scoring at the basket and Ezeli took care of the rest at the free throw line. It was symbiotic basketball at its best - and it led this team to the biggest win of Kevin Stallings's tenure as head coach.
The Commodores beat the SEC's best team since Florida's 2007 squad, using veteran guile to outplay a more athletic and talented Wildcat team. Taylor continued his terror run against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, limiting him to less than nine points for the third straight game. Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang combined to limit Anthony Davis to "just" 12 points and 10 rebounds. Marquis Teague, who terrorized this team in their last matchup with his ability to drive to the basket, went 0-7 from the field and scoreless overall against Vandy's often-maligned backcourt defense.
More importantly, they did it on the league's biggest stage. This team's M.O. wasn't just losing in the SEC Tournament - it was losing badly. Vanderbilt didn't get knocked out by juggernauts; they got beat by weaker teams before they even had the chance to pull an upset like yesterday's.
The Commodores didn't watch a second half lead slip away from them. This time, they were the ones rallying to victory. They got big stops when they needed them and effectively closed down Kentucky's interior offense, forcing the cold-shooting Wildcats to shoot their way out of it. The strategy worked - the 'Cats went the final 8:04 of the game without a field goal.
When they needed big plays, they got those too, including Kedren Johnson's reverse and-1 layup, Taylor's jump-step drive to the hoop, and Ezeli's game-tying tip-in with 1:54 to play. This team even iced their free throws in the stretch, going 7-7 when they needed them the most.
This team finally showed what they can do when everything clicks. Sunday's win wasn't a perfect game from these Commodores, but the outcome sure as hell was. Vanderbilt finally got to hoist that SEC Championship trophy. Just like that, the decisions of three young men on Natchez Trace were justified.
They'll have to stay hungry if they want to have another moment like Sunday's. Vanderbilt still has plenty of work to do to exorcise the demons of three straight first round losses in the NCAA Tournament. All three came with this team seeded fifth or higher.
Still, it was a great moment for a great team, and it should be the building block for a healthy postseason run. Vanderbilt proved many things this past weekend. They showed that they can win on the road. They showed that they can survive bad games from their best players. Most importantly, they showed that they can win games in the clutch. Ultimately, that's what Taylor, Ezeli, and Jenkins returned to Nashville to do.