NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Guess the kids are all right after all.
Sporting the Southeastern Conference’s youngest team, Vanderbilt extended its season by at least one more game here Thursday night with a 73-70 win over Arkansas in the second round of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
In doing so, the Commodores — winners of seven of their last 10 games and five of the last six — dashed any flickering hopes that Arkansas had been harboring this week for playing in the NCAA Tournament next week.
“You talk about the last couple of weeks, I tend to look at our growth over the course of the last couple of months,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team has no seniors and only two juniors. The Commodores started SEC play by losing seven of their first nine games, several of which were of the heartbreaking variety.
“We’ve gotten better offensively,” Stallings added. “We’ve gotten to where we know how to execute. We know what we’re looking for better, and our defense became solid before our offense did this season, way before.”
Tenth-seeded Vanderbilt (15-16) advances to play No. 2 seed Kentucky (21-10) in a Friday night quarterfinal match. It sets up a rematch of last year’s tournament championship game in New Orleans won by the Commodores over the eventual national champion. Kentucky beat the Commodores twice this season in two very close games, winning 60-58 at Vanderbilt on Jan. 10 and 74-70 in Lexington on Feb. 20.
“I feel like our team is in better position to win close games than we were earlier in the season,” Stallings said. “We’ve had a bunch of close games with Kentucky. They’ve won most of them. I don’t want to sit here and profess that we’re ready to win a close game against Kentucky.
“I anticipate that it will be a very competitive game.”
Against the Razorbacks (19-13), Vanderbilt continued to get a balanced scoring attack led again by junior forward Rod Odom, who matched his career-high of 20 points. He also had seven rebounds, one short of a career best, four blocked shots, three steals and two assists.
Junior guard Kyle Fuller came off the bench to notch 19 points, his best scoring effort against SEC opponents this season. Sophomore guard Kedren Johnson contributed 13 points and a game-high five assists, while sophomore guard Dai-Jon Parker added 11 points.
“We were playing more like a team,” Fuller said of his team’s effort against the Razorbacks. “We all knew how big this game was, and the whole thing about it was coach (Stallings) said let’s try to play well so we can play on Friday. Let’s play on Friday.”
Vanderbilt will. Arkansas won’t. And for the fifth year in a row, the Razorbacks depart the SEC tournament without a victory.
“I am disappointed because I thought our team was really primed for this tournament,” said second-year Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson, whose team split the season series with the Commodores, winning 56-33 at home on Jan. 12 and losing 67-49 at Vanderbilt on Feb. 9.
Vanderbilt opened the game blazing from beyond the 3-point arc and negotiating successfully the Arkansas full-court pressure. Before settling into a 38-30 halftime lead, the Commodores led by as many as 16 points, thanks in large part to knocking down 6-of-13 3-pointers.
“It’s hard to defend a team like that when their shooters are making and they’re getting to the paint and creating drives and kicks and their shooters are knocking shots down one through five,” said Arkansas sophomore guard B.J. Young, who had a team-high 16 points. Teammate Marshawn Powell, a junior forward, added 13 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
The Razorbacks sped up the tempo in the second half and eventually cut the deficit to three points with less than a minute to play. But the Commodores, who had struggled much of the season on free throw shooting, hit 5-of-6 foul tosses to secure the victory.
While any NCAA tourney hopes are gone, the Razorbacks said they want to continue playing this season in hopes of a bid to the NIT.
“I would love for this team to continue to play,” Anderson said. “They have improved from last year. To have the opportunity to play and get some practice time will only benefit our basketball team.”
As for the youthful Commodores, who lost their top seven scorers to graduation, including three NBA draft picks in John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor, their goal now is to play on Saturday.
And the way this team is closing the season only bodes well for the future.
“Well, I certainly enjoyed last year’s team and enjoyed their contributions to our basketball program, which were many,” Stallings said of the team that was eliminated by Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
” … I really enjoyed this (season’s) basketball team,” he added. “I don’t know if we’re any good now, but I know we weren’t any good at the beginning of the season. They are very coachable. They bought into our coaching staff.”