NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt knew it would be in for a mighty challenge come Saturday night. It also knew, win or lose, there would be ample teaching moments moving forward.
So despite the harshness of a 61-56 defeat to Liberty still lingering in the air at Memorial Gymnasium, Vandy head coach Jerry Stackhouse hopes – and expects – his team to come away a better unit.
“Every game there is different scenarios that come up that we can talk about and learn from and help these guys down the road,” the first-year coach said. “I think that’s where we got to go.”
The Commodores (6-3) couldn’t find the bottom of the net for the final 20 minutes Saturday. After taking a 35-27 lead 32 seconds into the second half on a Clevon Brown three-point play, Vandy went 10:30 without another made field goal – and scored only four points (all on free throws) during that span.
Still, Vanderbilt never got down more than four points and somehow found itself up 50-49 with 3:57 on the clock.
“You tell me before this game that we hold Liberty to 41 percent from the field and 22 percent from 3, I tell you we win this game,” Stackhouse said. “It’s clearly on our offense and rebounding the ball a little bit better. And that’s just a challenge and a toughness thing that we got to figure out.”
The normally high-scoring Commodores made just one 3 in the second half – Saben Lee’s buzzer beater that made the score final – and missed 17 long-distance shots overall. They were held to only six field goals and one assist in the second half.
Lee had 16 and Aaron Nesmith had 19 to lead the Dores, but Vanderbilt found it hard to find someone else to dent the scoring column. The Flames (12-0) packed in the defense on the interior and dared Vandy to beat them via the 3.
“Their rotations are there early, kind of help-the-helper defense, so people definitely show up on you earlier than most teams,” Lee said. “We definitely had opportunities, some shots that went in and out, shots that we usually hit. The offense created what we needed it to do, just in the second half it wasn’t falling for us.”
Vanderbilt looked poised to hand the visitors from Virginia their first loss of the season going into the break. It ended the opening half on an 11-0 run highlighted by Scotty Pippen’s lob to Lee for a two-handed jam that ignited the crowd.
This is certainly one way to end a half of basketball pic.twitter.com/MIH48zAy1m
— Chad Bishop (@MrChadBishop) December 15, 2019
But the Flames slowly began to chip away when the teams returned for the second half and they eventually went ahead 38-37 with 14:10 to go. And when trailing 50-49 late, Elijah Cuffee scored four straight – and Liberty never fell behind again by ending the contest on a 12-6 run.
“They held us to some awful numbers in the second half,” Stackhouse said. “You’re not going to win many games when you shoot 23 percent from the field and seven percent from 3 in a half. The fact that we still were in the game and had an opportunity to make a couple shots and win it, we have to feel good about that. That lets us know that our defense is doing its job for us.
“It’ll sting a little bit because there’s things that we know how to do and things that we work on that we just didn’t, for whatever reason, we didn’t do it tonight.”
Vanderbilt, now clear of final exams and out of class until the new year, turns its attention to its second road trip of the season. It leaves Monday for visit to Phoenix where it will face Loyola of Chicago (6-4) at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Stackhouse’s team will have plenty to discuss, diagnose and dissect before that matchup.
“Just got to get back to the basics,” Nesmith said.
• Vanderbilt now leads the series with Liberty 2-1.
• Lee needs 101 points to reach 1,000 for his career.
• Brown now has 115 career blocks, the seventh-most by a Commodore all-time. Julian Terrell is sixth with 116.
• Vanderbilt has made at least one 3 in 1,073 straight games.
• Attendance on Saturday was announced as 9,045 Giving Vanderbilt an average of 8,578 fans after eight home games.