Tonight Vanderbilt played like everything that a Top-25 team playing at home, on five days' rest, nearing the end of its conference schedule, with something to play for, cannot afford to play like. On the other hand, they played pretty much like you'd expect from a team that's been hungover all week from an emotional barnburner of a game that would have put them in a tie for first place with one of the best teams in the country. We looked sluggish on defense, were out of position way too often, got outrebounded 40-35, allowed too many second-chance points (19), and gave up too many points in the paint (42). All of that, and we still somehow managed to pull out a miracle 96-94 OT win when Georgia's last-ditch effort fell short.
Give the Dawgs credit: they are hands-down the best sub-.500 team in the country, and they proved tonight that what happened earlier this season in Athens wasn't a fluke. I think they are going to be really good next year, and frankly they looked like a team that deserved to win tonight the way they played hard and managed to hit their free throws (except those fateful last two in regulation) on the road.
The keys to this game for Vanderbilt were Jermaine Beal, Andre Walker, and the team's ability once again to get to the line and make it count, particularly in overtime. I want to highlight those positives first:
1. Bobby O'Shea was dead-on when he compared Jermaine Beal to Derrick Byars. This guy continues to play with an incredibly cool head under pressure, and has demonstrated time and again in his senior season an ability to put the team on his back and carry us to victory. Dolla scored a career-high 28 points on 9-19 shooting, was a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line, dished out 7 assists in a game where it was all he could do to get anyone involved, grabbed a big steal and committed (count 'em) ZERO turnovers in 39 minutes of play. Douglas James got it right -- that was the best performance in Memorial since Shan scored 42 on senior night against MSU. I thought the biggest indicators of Jermaine's impact were (1) the incredible drop-off that was obvious during the few minutes where Stallings decided to spell him, and (2) the fact that when the game was on the line and we were down late, he showed no fear. When it looked like we were going to lose down the stretch, every point we scored to climb back into the game was created by Beal, whether by taking it himself or by putting his teammate in a position to score. I cannot say enough about the game he played. Oh, also, that alley-oop to Taylor was just dirty.
2. Andre Walker gave Vanderbilt great minutes tonight. His 17 points included a HUGE three late in regulation and a big outside jumper in OT that helped lift Vanderbilt over the edge. As always with Andre, the little things went a long way: he was efficient (5-7 FG), reliable at the charity stripe (6-6 FTs), grabbed 6 boards including 4 on the offensive glass, handed out 3 helpers and made 3 big-time blocks, including a monster swat on a UGA three-point attempt with 13 seconds left in the game. Walker had a few ugly TOs (including that terrible travel in OT), but for his 38 minutes of play I have to take my hat off to the guy. His running floater brings a smile to my face every time.
3. Stat of the game: 20. Vandy made its last 20 free throws of the game. Wow. I can't remember ever seeing a Commodore team that's been this consistent from the free throw line. 35 of 39 free throws as a team is remarkable. Granted, the total number of FTs is a little deceiving because 12 of those came in overtime, but again, as a team we were 100% on those 12 in the extra session. How many coaches in the country would kill to have a group that could go 90% from the stripe as a unit? There is no doubt that as much as these SEC refs are (questionably in my opinion) calling fouls, and as well as Georgia shot their own free throws (76% in regulation), Vanderbilt's ability to pull out another win at the line was a key ingredient to victory. Let's keep that coming.
4. John Jenkins. Like Jermaine, this guy wants the ball in his hands when it's time for a big shot, and tonight he made them. His 14 points in 31 minutes were a huge boost given Taylor's tough night and Tinsley's MIA status. And folks, that will have to suffice as a segue to talk about what didn't go so well...
AJ. What are we going to do with this guy? He is driving me absolutely insane. INSANE. At times he flashes some of the best skill I've seen from a big man in college basketball. Tonight he picked up 10 rebounds, one of which was a very strong defensive board late in the overtime when we absolutely had to have it. His 16 points were largely a product of his efficiency from the free throw line, where he knocked down 11 of 14. Can't ask for your center to shoot much better than that from the line. And wow, that stick-back with 15 seconds on the clock was phenomenal. But then you look back at the easy misses underneath, the way he lumbers lazily down the court and then stands complacent in the low post instead of fighting to get a look, the failure to box out guys he's got a size advantage on, the refusal to take it up strong and flush the ball, the apparent satisfaction with getting contact on his shot rather than finishing with a bang, and the MORONIC touch-foul with 0.09 seconds to go in overtime. In AJ's defense, I think some of it is Stallings' offensive design, which often brings Ogilvy out to the perimeter to set back screens or take the screen-away pass. But this does not detract from the principal question: WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH HIM?
JT. I'm basically willing to give Taylor a pass because of how well he's been playing otherwise. The guy had an off night, no doubt about it. His 11 points and 6 boards makes it look better than it was. 3 of 11 from the floor was pretty weak, but fouling out at the 2-minute mark with the team down two points was nearly catastrophic. I thought Jeff was out of position WAY too often on defense, and maybe more than anyone else just looked sluggish. Again, I don't think it's a serious problem, but not something I'm eager to see much more of as we near the end of the season.
Tinsley. One of the most potent aspects of this Vanderbilt team is that we do not start our five best players (talent-wise). John Jenkins has shown what he can do if cut loose. At the same time, I'm actually loving the fact that he's coming off the bench. I think it gives us continuous firepower and prevents other teams from getting an edge when we rotate guards. But for this whole thing to work, it would be nice if Tinsley could be more of a factor. Where was he tonight? All I can remember him doing is committing two very costly turnovers -- one after driving wildly underneath the basket and chucking it back out to the top of the key (which went for a transition bucket the other way, an obvious consequence of one of the lowest-percentage passes in basketball), and the other with just over 1 minute remaining in the game when we were down 4 points and he errantly tried to pass it to Walker, who was running to the wing to make a back screen and wasn't even close to being in position to do something with the ball. I love the way Brad typically plays, but tonight he just seemed like a ghost except for those two awful passes and his three-pointer. In 26 minutes of play, most of what I saw him do on offense was stand in the corner. Sweet. That's not the Brad Tinsley I know. I want the Tinsley who's constantly running the baseline and laying down flare screens. Give me back that Tinsley.
Bottom line: First of all, Rob Stone and Jay Williams are two of the worst people to have to spend your Thursday night with. More to the point, we are very, very lucky to be 21-6 right now. We got outplayed for much of the game on our home court, arguably got some generous calls (like that phantom over-the-back on Barnes in the OT), made some dumb plays, and basically looked slow after five days of rest. Give the Dores credit for grinding out an ugly win though, and for once again never losing confidence in their ability to win when it looked like a lost cause. The question now is whether we can turn it around for a 12:30 CST game in Fayetteville on Saturday. Well...can we?