The Vanderbilt Commodores took on the Auburn Tigers last Saturday night in a highly anticipated matchup between two teams battling for a potential double bye in the SEC Tournament this year. Vanderbilt has been playing their best basketball of the season down the stretch and with only a few games to go this was a must-win game to keep their NCAA postseason dreams alive. Vanderbilt was coming off of their four-game winning streak with some impressive wins over teams like Tennessee and Florida, but this was a game that could really give them their stamp of approval that they may be a serious contender and not just a hot pretender.
The game got off to a somewhat slow start in a good defensive battle, which is not exactly Vandy’s forte. Vanderbilt held the lead for the majority of the first half behind Robbins’ 13 points including eight made free throws. The Commodores took a four-point lead into the break but quickly gave the lead back to Auburn early in the second half. Much like in recent games, they did not lay down though, they kept battling back and forth showing resilience and toughness answering any runs that Auburn made. They did a particularly good job on the Tigers’ leading scorer Wendell Green Jr. holding him to just 5 points on 2-14 shooting on the night. Auburn’s K.D. Johnson hit a deep three-pointer with 10 seconds to go in the game to tie it up at 65-65. Bruce Pearl elected to take a timeout to set his defense up and that allowed Jerry Stackhouse to set up his final play to win the game. Very similar to the Tennessee game-winner he used Ezra Manjon up top with shooters in the corners to free up the lane. Manjon got downhill thanks to a Stute screen up top and he got to the hole and made a very tough, contested left-handed layup with just :03 seconds to go to give the Commodores the 67-65 lead. The game was not completely over without any drama after a steal by Wright on the inbounds lead to a foul after review. He missed the front end of the 1 and 1 free throw and Auburn missed the full-court heave and that sealed the Commodores’ 5th straight victory. A huge win by all accounts to solidify that this team is for real and can make some serious noise down the stretch if they can continue this level of play.
Much has been made about Jerry Stackhouse’s job security throughout the season, but over the last three weeks, he has righted the ship and gotten the most out of his players. Guys like Ezra Manjon and Liam Robbins are playing the best basketball of their careers and leading a team that seemed dead not too long ago to a team that you don’t want to face heading into March. This is all being done too without the level of contributions being made from senior guard Jordan Wright that had been expected coming into the season. This is not to discredit Wright or his play, but to accentuate that there could be more to the rise of play from the Commodores. This team now has four guys in Manjon, Robbins, Lawrence, and Wright who on any given night and lead the team to a victory and give opponents matchup problems when Vandy is on the offensive end of the floor. Pair those four with shooters like Stute and Thomas who can get hot from deep on any given night, and you have a dangerous team that can beat you in many different ways. The only hope now is that this team did not get it going a little too late and can still make their case for an NCAA Tournament appearance. Joe Lunardi put out his updated bracketology rankings Monday morning with Vanderbilt ranked 81st listed under the “considered” section just beyond his “next four out” column. There is no doubt that currently they are playing like a tournament team and are very dangerous, but the committee really uses a full-season approach to resume. The best thing for Vanderbilt to do is to keep winning and the committee will have no choice but to put them in.
Looking ahead, Vanderbilt travels to Baton Rouge to take on an LSU team on a major downhill slide. The LSU Tigers have lost 14 straight games with their most recent loss coming to the not-so-good team in South Carolina. Make no mistake about it though, Vanderbilt does not have the luxury to take any game lightly down the stretch. Every single game matters from this point forward and slipping up against a team like this could prove deadly to any at-large bid hopes. Vanderbilt moved to 15-12 (8-6) this past weekend and is now tied for 5th in the SEC standings. If they can continue to keep winning, a matchup with Kentucky in Rupp Arena could be one for the aforementioned double bye in the SEC tournament coming up hosted in Nashville.
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