By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE — After losing three players to the NBA Draft last June, Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings knew the 2012-13 season could be a bit of a challenge. The job of rebuilding would be done with freshmen and sophomores, forcing him to readjust his outlook and put a damper on his expectations.
“Our goal all season long was we wanted the sum to be greater than the parts,” Stallings said. “And now I think we’re starting to experience that. We’ve finally gotten to the point where we can say that’s actually true. That’s a fun thing for this group because we’ve worked hard to improve.”
Stallings was speaking over the roar of a locker room filled with those young players, nary a five-star recruit in the bunch, who had just pulled off their second SEC Tournament shocker in as many years. In 2012 in New Orleans, the Commodores defeated eventual national champion Kentucky for the school’s first SEC Tournament title since 1951. On that day, Stallings, he of the midwestern stoicism, gave a rare glimpse of his emotions, burying his head in a towel as the final seconds ticked away.
Friday night, the Commodores did it to their coach again. Vanderbilt’s improbable 64-48 victory over Kentucky, achieved by the perfect implementation of a perfect game plan, forced him to pause for a second as he replayed the accomplishment in his mind. This time, there was no towel to hide behind. Stallings was on the podium in the media room.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a team as I’ve been of this team here,” Stallings said as he wrestled back his emotions. “And we’re 16-16. This is the first time we’ve been at .500 in about five months.”
Just as Stallings suspected, this hasn’t been the smoothest of seasons. The rocky road began in November, when the Commodores lost three straight in the Old Spice Classic, the last two to Davidson and Marist. There was also a loss to mid-state rival Middle Tennessee, and a 19-point beat down by Butler in the Commodores’ own Memorial Gym.
Then came real disappointment—a series of narrow defeats to start the SEC season. The first was at home, 60-58 to Kentucky. Ole Miss stole a win in Nashville when Marshall Henderson tossed in a 35-footer to send the game into overtime, where the Rebels won handily. A chance to steal back a crucial win at Tennessee was dashed with a point-blank miss of a potential game-winning tip-in at the buzzer.
That seemingly devastating litany of losses might have broken a lesser coach, crushed a group of young players unaccustomed since their days as high school stars to being on the wrong end of the scoreboard. But Stallings, ever the battler, dug in, and his assistants and players were right behind him.
Improvement came in small increments, imperceptible to all but the Vanderbilt staff, but come it did. And by the last month of the season, the Commodores had made themselves into a tough out.
And now, the team that started out 2-7 in SEC games has won 8 of 11 and finds itself in the SEC tournament semifinals.
“Shot making, free-throw shooting, playing together, making the extra pass, better ball care, defense,” Stallings said when asked where the improvement has come. “We’re improved in every area. These guys were so young when we started. We knew we were gonna have some hard times this year.
“I give them all the credit for staying with it and staying with what we asked them to do and being resilient through tough losses.”
Friday’s game summed up that statement. The Commodores knew what they had to do in order to win. Knowing what to do is one thing. Going out and doing it—that’s what separates winners from losers.
“They kinda have young guys, some shoot, some can’t, so we just knew we had to pack it in, stay in front of their drivers, help out when we could, take charges,” was how forward Shelby Moats described Vanderbilt’s defensive goal against the Wildcats.
Offensively, the Commodores spread the floor and carved up Kentucky with cuts, crisp passes and deadly accurate shooting.
“We made 3s,” assistant coach Tom Richardson said. “When we make 3s, we’re a good team. In two games [including a win over Arkansas on Thursday night] we made 3s.”
Executing their offensive and defensive game plans wasn’t the only challenge for the Commodores. They also had to get past the crowd of mostly Kentucky fans that turned the Bridgestone Arena into Rupp Arena South.
“Actually, I like that challenge,” Vanderbilt forward Josh Henderson said. “We know the Big Blue Nation. We know they travel. Walking out, you could tell they would have a home-court advantage. Some dude yelled at us, ‘Welcome to Lexington.’ Well, I guess we welcomed them to Nashville.”