In a season where little has come easy for the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-12, 2-6 SEC), Saturday’s 58-54 loss against Alabama (14-7, 6-2 SEC) was another crushing late-game defeat. Leading by 11 points with 7:10 remaining in the game, the Commodores had Alabama on the ropes. Yet, the boys in black and gold failed to capitalize and were outscored 18-3 in the contest’s remaining minutes.
“Well, obviously another close game, disappointing for us,” said Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings in his postgame press conference. “They (Alabama) obviously played a lot better down the stretch than we did.”
Following a heartbreaking 58-57 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 29, Vanderbilt was eager to return to its home gym and earn a win against one of the Southeastern Conference’s better teams. In the first half, the Commodores looked well on their way to a victory, shooting nearly 58 percent from the field and playing stifling defense, holding the Tide to just 23 points. The Commodores also received help from the bench, which chipped in 12 points.
The first 13 minutes of the second half looked equally promising for Vanderbilt. After battling through an Alabama run that cut the score to 42-38, the Commodores went on a 9-2 outburst. Redshirt sophomore James Siakam ignited the stretch with a dunk, which was followed by two layups by redshirt sophomore Josh Henderson and a three-pointer by junior guard Kyle Fuller, giving Vanderbilt a 51-40 lead with 7:10 remaining. Fuller finished the game with 13 points and was the Commodores’ second leading scorer behind sophomore guard Kedren Johnson, who chipped in 15 points.
From then on, the wheels fell off the wagon. Johnson and Fuller had trouble breaking Alabama’s full court press, resulting in short possessions with contested jump shots. In the final five minutes of Saturday’s game, Vanderbilt’s guards committed three turnovers, a statistic that irked their head coach.
“You can’t win in this league if you don’t have good guard play,” said Stallings. By the end of the game, Johnson, Fuller and sophomore Dai-Jon Parker combined for 10 of their team’s 17 turnovers.
However, while the Commodores faltered, the Crimson Tide regained control of the game through the steady play of sophomore guard Trevor Lacey. Lacey led Alabama on the day with 17 points and 4 rebounds, nine of which came during his team’s 18-3 run to end the game. The Hunstville, AL native’s biggest shot of the day came in the form of a dagger three-pointer with 58 seconds remaining in the game, a play that gave the Tide a 56-54 lead.
After taking a timeout with 38 seconds left, Kevin Stallings gave his team a chance to tie the game. Drawing up one of his trademark inbounds plays, Stallings chalked it up for Henderson to roll to the basket for an easy layup. But the opportunity fell short as the 6-11 forward’s shot was blocked and no player in a white jersey came to crash the boards.
A pair of missed three-pointers by Fuller and freshman Kevin Bright later, the Commodores found themselves face to face with another loss.
“It’s the same stuff for us. We miss free throws, we miss layups and then take bad shots,” said Stallings. “You’ve got to make winning plays at the end of games, not losing plays, and we continue to make losing plays.”
When asked about their struggles over the course of the season, Stallings’ players echoed their coach’s sentiments.
“It was frustrating then, it’s frustrating now,” said Johnson.
With 10 games remaining in the regular season, Vanderbilt finds itself at a crossroads. A young team that has displayed flashes of potential, the Commodores have labored to put together a solid 40 minutes of basketball together since the beginning of the season.
And the lack of confidence baffles Kevin Stallings.
“I’m the only one who thinks we’re going to win and we’re supposed to win,” Stallings said. “We have guys that play not to lose. There are too many guys who don’t want what goes at the end of the game. They’re not ready for it yet apparently. That is disappointing because at this point in your life you should be.”
Vanderbilt’s next game will be played against LSU on Feb. 6. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. CST.