NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It wasn’t the crispest of wins to start a new season, but a win is still a win.
Vanderbilt began the 2020-21 season with a victory Friday as it raced past visiting Valparaiso 77-71 at Memorial Gymnasium. The Commodores outscored Valparaiso 23-12 over the final 6 1/2 minutes to start the campaign the right way.
“A win is a win is a win,” Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “We did enough.”
Vandy never trailed by more than five, but that was the margin with 6:52 to play with all the momentum on the side of the visitors. An experienced Crusaders squad looked poised to put a few nails in the coffin.
But D.J. Harvey, a transfer from Notre Dame, splashed an important 3 and the Commodores seemed to be energized from there.
By the time Maxwell Evans drained a triple with 2:41 to go, Valparaiso couldn’t recover.
“It’s our first time playing against a new defense and a new offense – it’s just new and we got a lot of new guys,” Pippen said about the ebb and the flow of the game before Vandy put it all together. “We have a lot of freshmen playing, we have a lot of new transfers playing, so it’s new for all of us. We haven’t been playing basketball (together) in quarantine so just being out there and playing with so many new people it’s something to adjust to.”
Pippen scored a career-high 25 points and was 14-for-14 from the line. Evans had 16 and Dylan Disu brought down 11 rebounds.
But perhaps the bigger storyline was that Disu and Harvey, each of whom were expected to be primary scorers coming into 2020-21, had rough nights in the scoring column and the Commodores still pulled out the victory.
That duo was 5 of 14 from the floor and Harvey had an uncharacteristic five turnovers. Vandy compensated for those shortcomings with what it hopes is a strong facet of this season’s squad: Depth.
“It’s going to be different guys’ games on different nights and we just got to accept that right now,” Stackhouse said. “It’s parity, but I think it’s a good thing. Obviously, from where we were last year, to have a little bit of depth and have a little bit more options makes my job a little bit tougher – but I appreciate that part of it.”
Vanderbilt got out to an 8-3 lead less than four minutes in only to see the Crusaders use an 8-0 to surge back ahead in a sign of things to come. Vandy led 32-23 with 2:12 to play until halftime just to watch the Crusaders close the period on an 11-2 spurt.
Mileek McMillan’s 3 at the buzzer tied the score at 34-all at the break.
The Commodores then struggled to play consistent basketball over the next 13 minutes. With no home crowd to egg them on due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vandy struggled to gain some momentum.
“We got a find a way to create our own enthusiasm,” Stackhouse said. “Without having fans there it’s important that our bench is engaged and loud and trying to help guys that are in the game. We can’t just be sitting over there wondering, ‘When am I going to get in the game?’ We got to create our own enthusiasm so hopefully we’ll be better than that than we were tonight.”
Vanderbilt (1-o) now turns its attention to the Roman Legends Classic in Uncasville, Connecticut. It’s there that it will face Connecticut (2-0) at 4 p.m. CT Tuesday on ESPn2 before taking on Southern California or Brigham Young on Thursday.
Those two games are just more opportunities for the Dores to grow before the always-daunting SEC schedule begins at the end of December.
“The thing about these guys is they’re learning,” Stackhouse said. “They’re learning and they’re getting better and they need these experiences of getting in games.
Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.