NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew cut straight to the point as he sat down for his postgame interview following Wednesday’s 74-71 loss to South Carolina.
"I’m sure you guys are saying the same thing I’m saying right now: how in the world did we lose that game?" Drew said.
Relative confusion and a search for answers lingered within Memorial Gymnasium after the Commodores failed to close another SEC matchup. Vanderbilt led by as many as 12 in the second half on Wednesday, and even after the Gamecocks had rallied to tie things up late, the Dores held a 71-70 lead with 29.8 seconds left. But South Carolina knocked down four straight free throws to close the deal.
The loss dropped Vanderbilt to 0-4 in SEC play just before it embarks on a difficult stretch. Its next four opponents – Tennessee, Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Kentucky – are all currently ranked in the top-25. For now, Drew said the Commodores have no choice but to find a way to right the ship.
"We have not been able to close out a game," Drew said. "Those are things we will continue to evaluate and look at."
For much of Wednesday’s matchup, Vanderbilt looked poised to secure its first league victory. It led South Carolina 39-29 at halftime, holding the visiting squad to just 33 percent shooting from the field through one half. But the Gamecocks came out firing after intermission, hitting 50 percent (12-24) of their shots and connecting on 17-of-23 free throws down the stretch. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, continued to struggle from the free-throw line, missing 13 of its 37 attempts on the night.
Now the Commodores seek a remedy to their conference ills. Poor free-throw shooting plagued the Dores in their SEC opener against Ole Miss. Vanderbilt struggled in the second half in a road loss to Georgia. Then it gave up an early 11-point lead on the road against Kentucky. Each of Vanderbilt’s first four SEC losses could have been wins, but it could not close when necessary.
The Commodores can certainly find positives in their start to SEC play. Saben Lee continues to play like an All-SEC candidate; the sophomore guard had 17 points in a team-high 36 minutes on Wednesday. Simisola Shittu scored 13 despite foul trouble and remains among the SEC leaders in rebounding. Moreover, freshman Aaron Nesmith – a Charleston, South Carolina native – scored a career-high 23 points against his home-state team, making his third straight start in SEC play.
All that said, Vanderbilt’s 0-4 start to SEC play is difficult to sugarcoat.
"We’ve just got to step up and be leaders on the team, talk to us when we’re down and make sure we stick together," said Nesmith. "I wouldn’t say we have a vocal leader right now, so we’ve got to figure that out."
On Wednesday night, Drew said his team was emotional in the locker room, fully aware of the opportunity that had painfully passed them by. The coach said the Commodores cannot allow that feeling to dictate the remainder of SEC play. That’s why Vanderbilt can expect some tough love on the horizon from Drew and his staff as they search for answers.
"There’s no coddling them or anything like that," Drew said. "We should’ve won this game."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.