The first half of Wednesday night’s game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the Auburn Tigers was the Saben Lee show. The junior guard scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting and helped Vanderbilt keep the game close. And yet, as expected, Vanderbilt had no answer inside early on for Auburn’s big men. In spite of starting a bigger lineup than usual — Ejike Obinna got a start alongside Dylan Disu — Vanderbilt could do little in the first half to hold Isaac Okoro and Anfernee McLemore in check, and Auburn held a 42-38 lead at the break.
The bad news is that this didn’t hold up for very long in the second half. Lee opened the second half with a bucket to cut Auburn’s lead to two, but then the Tigers went on a 9-0 run. Vanderbilt responded with a 7-0 run, but after that the Commodores seemed to remember that they were playing the number 5 team in the country on the road. The Tigers slowly started to pull away, with a lot of their damage being done at the foul line as a whistle-happy officiating crew met Vanderbilt’s young big men.
But then Vanderbilt got back into the game late. With 5:09 left, Dylan Disu made a long three, and Vanderbilt started to get defensive stops. After a three from Lee and a layup by Nesmith, Vanderbilt suddenly was down by just four with under three minutes left in the game. Disu picked up his fifth foul battling for an offensive rebound with 2:59 left, but a three by Aaron Nesmith on the next possession cut Auburn’s lead to three (and got fouled, though he missed the free throw.)
The Tigers got the lead back out to six — but another Nesmith three and a Jordan Wright layup cut the lead to 78-77 with 1:07 left in the game. On the ensuing possession, Okoro got a trip to the line, but made one of two — and Vanderbilt went over the top of Auburn’s press to find Jordan Wright going to the basket; Auburn fouled Wright on a layup attempt. Wright made both free throws to tie the game at 79 with just under a minute left.
Auburn’s J-Von McCormick made two free throws to give the Tigers the lead back, though, and Ejike Obinna missed two chances to tie the game. Auburn made one of two free throws at the other end, but after a timeout, Vanderbilt threw the ball away on the inbounds, and that was the game. The final was 83-79. Saben Lee finished with 27 points and Aaron Nesmith had 18 in the loss.