For a 16-plus minute stretch of their 79-70 win over 12-seed Harvard in an East Region match-up in Albuquerque, Vanderbilt had the look of a team poised to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Kevin Stallings’ team outscored Harvard 42-24 from the 5:07 mark of the first half to the 7:52 mark in the second, looking every bit the Final Four contender many believe them to be in the aftermath of their winning the SEC tournament.
But it’s those other minutes that the Commodores will need to address if they’re to get past 4-seed Wisconsin on Saturday, much less make a return trip to New Orleans.
Vandy was able to close the game out at the foul line, making 13 of their 16 attempts as the Crimson sent them to the line down the stretch, and the Commodores made 21 of 30 from the charity stripe on the afternoon.
“I thought we got a little tentative there in that stretch at the end,” said head coach Kevin Stallings. “Almost like we were playing not to lose instead of playing to win. We want to play to win for 40 minutes. We don’t ever want to play not to lose.”
John Jenkins led the way with 27 points despite making 3 of 8 shots from beyond the arc, and Festus Ezeli’s defending of Harvard forward Keith Wright was also pivotal. Wright made three of his eight attempts, finishing with eight points and nine rebounds.
Laurent Rivard did his best to shoot the Crimson back into the game, knocking down three of his six 3-pointers (seven attempts) within a 3-minute, 38-second span to pull Harvard to within 11 (49-38) at the 14-minute mark.
But Harvard would shortly begin a stretch of 4-plus minutes without a field goal, and by that point the lead was back up to 18. The Crimson finish the season 26-5, with their first NCAA appearance since 1946 not lasting as long as they had hoped.
Vanderbilt will need to defend the three well on Saturday against the Badgers, as Wisconsin scores more than 35% of their points from beyond the arc and they knocked down ten (19 attempts) in their win over Montana.
But most importantly the Commodores have to be consistent in the effort department. Coasting as they did at times today will get them in serious trouble against the Badgers.
“I was more concerned with the tentativeness and the clock watching and, just like I said before, that we weren’t playing to win,” remarked Stallings. “We were playing not to lose. That may be a function of what’s happened the last two years with these kids in the first round.”
Consider those demons exorcised.