NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Lose as many close games as Vanderbilt has this season, and it would be only natural for players to start doubting themselves.
That would be especially so for a team as young as the Commodores, who have no seniors and only two juniors on one of the nation’s youngest rosters.
“At some point, human nature, common sense says their confidence is going to waver,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team Saturday made sure its game with visiting Arkansas wasn’t close in a 67-49 blowout victory.
Of the seven losses in their first nine Southeastern Conference games, the Commodores (9-13, 3-7 in SEC) had been defeated handily just twice. Those others losses, well, they were all of the gut-wrenching variety.
The heart breakers have included an overtime loss to Ole Miss, a four-point loss to Alabama in which they blew an 11-point lead with seven minutes to play, a two-point home loss to Kentucky, and a pair of road losses by one point to LSU and Tennessee, the latter of which saw Vanderbilt miss not one but two game-winning shots from point-blank range at the buzzer.
“If you don’t win one, they are going to lose faith, lose hope, lose confidence, lose trust, lose something,” Stallings said. “So, you need something good to happen.”
Saturday’s win over the Razorbacks (14-9, 5-5) avenged an embarrassing 22-point loss on the road Jan. 12 that saw the Commodores play miserably and score a meager 33 points. They also beat an Arkansas team that was coming off a convincing win Tuesday at home against No. 2 Florida in one of the program’s biggest wins in several years.
“We are a young group,” forward Rod Odom said after leading Vandy with a game-high 15 points. “And we understand that we all haven’t been in late-game situations and had to deal with the things that we have had to deal with this year.”
But to keep losing games of the could-have, should-have variety wears on a team, correct?
“They haven’t shown any signs of that,” said Stallings, whose team plays host to rival Tennessee on Wednesday. “But then again, that’s what common sense says, that at some point you lose close game after close game after close game, and this team has shown no signs of that. And I applaud them for that.”
The offensive surge from Odom has been key for the Commodores in recent weeks, including scoring a career-high 20 points Wednesday at LSU. Last season, he averaged only 2.4 points per game.
“Rod is starting to play like we expected Rod to play from the outset of the season,” Stallings said of the 6-foot-9 junior. “He’s making shots. He’s being aggressive. He looks like he means it when he jumps up to shoot it. He goes to the basket with some purpose and with some intent.
” . . . The last two or three games, he’s been pretty stellar for us.”
Also contributing of late have been freshman forward Sheldon Jeter and sophomore center Josh Henderson. Jeter was recently inserted into the starting lineup, and he has responded, scoring all 13 points in the first half Saturday as Vandy took control of the game early. Henderson came off the bench to hit 5 of 6 shots, score 11 points and block three shots.
“We had some close losses that kind of hurt us,” the 6-foot-11 Henderson said. “But at the same time, it was just making us stronger and hungrier to get a win.”
The Commodores were aided with Arkansas standout Marshawn Powell being ineffective because of foul trouble most of the game. He picked up his third foul in the first half, and when he picked up his fourth foul after the Hogs had closed to within five points midway through the second half, Vandy went on a 9-0 run and held the Hogs scoreless for more than five minutes to secure the victory.
Powell, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who was leading the Hogs in scoring at 15.1 points per game entering the game, scored only four points in 17 minutes.
“It’s a gamble anytime you do it,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said of playing Powell in the first half with two fouls. “He’s done it before and done well with it. Today, I guess he got his hand caught in the cookie jar.”
With 13 points, junior point guard Mardracus Wade was the only Hog to score in double figures.
“I was really surprised,” Anderson said of his team’s lackluster performance following the win over Florida. “I guess I will take the blame for that. I did a poor job of making sure our guys were on an even keel.
“Sometimes, when you play a team such as Florida and people are patting you on the back, you start believing them. I think we got caught up in that as a young team.”
While the Commodores played well and shot 50 percent from the field, Arkansas struggled offensively, shooting only 30.8 percent. Vandy held a 35-30 rebounding edge and led by as many as 21 points in the waning moments.
“I’m certainly fired up for my team,” Stallings said. “I thought that was a tremendous effort, especially a tremendous effort defensively.
“They have been kicked in the you-know-whats several times here the last few weeks, and they responded basically every time and continue to come out and fight and play with a great deal of energy and purpose.”