Vanderbilt revels in tourney success

As Vanderbilt huddled eagerly during a timeout Thursday afternoon with less than two minutes left against Harvard, a graphic flashed on The Pit’s two massive video boards.

Having been ahead by as many as 16 points earlier in the second half, the Commodores’ lead had dwindled to single digits in the midst of a frantic comeback by the Crimson.

But while coach Kevin Stallings barked out instructions to his players during the break, several of them looked at the graphic. It was a list that showed the Commodores’ recent losses in their first games of the NCAA tournament:

2008: No. 12 Sienna 83-62

2010: No. 13 Murray State 66-65

2011: No. 12 Richmond 69-66

2012: No. 12 Harvard ?????

When guard Lance Goulbourne saw it, he immediately looked away, as did forward Aaron Noll. Both seniors had been part of two of those defeats and couldn’t stand to think about another one.

But when senior guard Steve Tchiengang saw the list, he stared it down and quietly voiced what everyone else on his team’s bench wanted to say.

“Not anymore,” Tchiengang said.

And with clutch free-throw shooting late to offset a field goal drought over the final 5:22, fifth-seeded Vanderbilt’s recent string of losses in their first game of the NCAA tournament is indeed no more after a gritty 79-70 victory against scrappy Harvard in what had been dubbed the “Brain Bowl.”

“It’s nice to finally have that off our back," Stallings said of his team’s recent losses in its first NCAA tournament game.

The Commodores (25-10) controlled most of the East Regional contest until the Crimson’s late 11-3 run, and were led by junior sharp-shooting guard John Jenkins’ game-high 27 points.

“This one definitely means something to us,” said senior forward Jeffrey Taylor, who had 15 points.

It showed as the normally stoic Stallings exited the court after the win. He whistled to raucous Vanderbilt fans using two fingers from each of his hands and then pumped his right fist in celebration.

He was ecstatic, not for himself, but for his players, none of whom had previously won an NCAA tournament game. And as he walked to his post-game press conference, he reiterated what he has said about his team all season.

“They deserve this,” Stallings said.

Because until Thursday’s victory, Vanderbilt’s six seniors were generally viewed as underachievers, despite their now 91 career wins, because of their failures in the NCAA tournament.

That stigma bothered Stallings so much that even after the Commodores knocked off top-ranked Kentucky to win the SEC tournament on Sunday for the first time since 1951, he brought up critics’ “naysaying” and how they only want to talk about his team’s NCAA tournament losses the previous two years.

He even went so far as to say that his upperclassmen “deserve better than that.”

“They have done things for Vanderbilt basketball that have never been done before,” Stallings said. “They have raised the awareness of our program. They have raised the status of our program. They have made us relevant on a national level.”

But for all of Stallings’ praise for this team, which was ranked seventh nationally in the preseason, even he admitted that he saw “tentativeness and the clock watching” when Harvard started to rally.

“We were playing not to lose,” he said. “That may be a function of what’s happened the last two years with these kids.”

Vanderbilt next faces fourth-seeded Wisconsin (25-9), and has the ingredients to make a run in the NCAA tournament with a propitious Round of 16 matchup looming potentially against struggling top-seeded Syracuse. Besides experience, the Commodores have size as evidenced by five players who are at least 6-foot-7 that saw time against Harvard, and a host of stellar shooters, who entered the game shooting a combined 38.9 percent on 3s.

For it to happen though, they will have to overcome their biggest weakness this season: inconsistency. They are so unpredictable at times that Stallings compared his team to a “box of chocolates” during the SEC tournament.

“You just don’t know,” Stallings said. “I would like to say that I know and I would like to say that they’re the pillars of consistency, but they’re not.”

In the locker room after the win, Vanderbilt players talked of not being satisfied by their victory. But they were happy to have answered some question marks, especially the ones that were in that video-board graphic.

Said Goulbourne, “They are now filled with, ‘Win.’”