NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In January, three of Vanderbilt’s five league losses were by an average of 6.3 points. And in two of those defeats in particular, Vandy head coach Jerry Stackhouse really felt like his team let victory slip through the fingertips.
In the past four days, however, the Commodores flipped the script on late-game letdowns with some poise and maturity on their home court.
“We were really confident in our offense. I think that’s something we couldn’t say earlier in the season, we were a little bit less-poised toward the end of (games),” Vanderbilt junior Jordan Wright said. “But now we’re so confident. We’re confident in everyone and just having that confidence and poise, having an older group, having veterans out there we know we can grind it out and get the win.”
Wright had 11 points and 11 rebounds in a 70-62 victory over Missouri at Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday. He was one five different players in double figures and one of five different players to make a crucial free throws over the course of the final 4:26.
Those free throws, of which Vandy made 11 during that stretch, helped the Dores pull away for a second straight victory after they had trailed by a point with as little as 4:27 to play. Vanderbilt beat No. 25 LSU 75-66 on Saturday after allowing a late 16-0 run and seeing a 21-point lead shrink to five in the final minutes.
“I thought we did a good job just working the game, working the game. They made a big run there at the end to get the lead and then we found a way to stretch it out again,” Stackhouse said. “Those last seven minutes became a seven-minute game. That’s what we talked about in the huddle and I thought the guys did a good job of closing it out, making free throws and making the plays that we needed to make down the stretch.”
Vanderbilt (13-10, 5-6 SEC) led by as many as 11 Tuesday and needed to melt just 10:22 off the clock. That didn’t seem like much of a challenge against a Missouri squad (9-14, 3-7 SEC) that was struggling to score all night long.
Ronnie DeGray’s 3-pointer 17 seconds after Vandy had built its biggest lead, however, sparked a 17-5 run and suddenly put the Tigers up 55-54 with a little less than six minutes to go.
And perhaps last month or last year or last season the Commodores of old would have wilted under the pressure. But as they showed Saturday, maybe these Commodores are emerging as something different.
They made 11 of 16 free throws over the final 4 1/2 minutes and held the Tigers to just four points – and one made field goal – in that span.
“We had some games earlier in the year that slipped by. The Tennessee game still sits in my mind (a 68-60 loss),” Stackhouse said. “Not only did our guys get better (since then), we got better at making sure we have them prepared to execute those situations later in games and I think they’re doing a good job of doing it.”
Vanderbilt now takes a two-game modest streak into Knoxville to face No. 19 Tennessee at 5 p.m. CT Saturday. It hopes to put itself in another scenario where it has a chance to pull off some late-game heroics.
Perhaps then it can break a nine-game skid to its bitter rival.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.