There were flowers, speeches and warm applause, but no victory for Vanderbilt seniors Greg LaPointe and Anthony Williams as they played their last game at Memorial Gym.
The Commodores closed out the home portion of the regular season much like they have played for the past month _ staying close to the opposition but not able to make the right play at the right time for a victory.
Wednesday night, despite cutting a nine-point lead to two, and later an 11-point lead to one, the Commodores fell short 72-62 to the No.6-ranked Florida Gators in front of 13,411 fans. Vanderbilt dropped their sixth straight game and slipped to 15-13, 4-11 in the SEC. Florida is 21-5, 11-4.
"Granted, we're getting beaten by better teams, but the best team doesn't always have to win," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "That's why they play the games."
The weariness and frustration showed in Stallings' face. He has watched his team rally and fall short too many times. For Stallings it is a matter of not having enough pieces of the puzzle to complete a winning picture.
He pointed to Florida with three players in double figures _ Brett Nelson with 24 points (19 in the second half), Matt Bonner with 19 and Major Parker with 11.
"They have the kind of team you want to have because they have lots of offensive weaponry," Stallings said. "We just can't do the things we need to do with our team right now to get very deep into (the other team's) bench.
"I think Florida is the best offensive team in our league. They have a lot of firepower."
The Commodores beat the Gators 63-61 in Gainesville Jan. 20 on a 3-point shot by freshman Brendan Plavich. Florida coach Billy Donovan made sure 3-point defense was an emphasis as the Commodores hit only seven of 27 attempts.
"Anytime you play against Vanderbilt your main concern is their ability to shoot from behind the 3-point line," Donovan said. "They beat us in Gainesville from behind the arc. We did a pretty good job in the first half against them and an O.K. job in the second half.
"They can do it to you from the 3-point line. Most teams you play have three or maybe four 3-point shooters. Kevin can put five out there."
The Commodores were more worried about their inside game than their 3-point shooting. They were prepared to play without the services of LaPointe whose 102 temperature and seven trips to the bathroom to throw up kept him out of practice Tuesday. Not having LaPointe in practice has been a routine for the Commodores as he has battled a nagging back problem. And not having LaPointe in practice on a regular schedule has made game preparations virtually impossible. It was something that Stallings admitted was on his mind while making final game day notes.
"I stopped to think about the different ways you get debilitated by not having a guy in practice that is one of your main guys," Stallings said. "I'm very disturbed by our lack of progress. Yet, the truth is you can't progress, and you can't get into any flow and generate confidence in yourself or your team when you play in practice one way and show up game night and have a different piece of your puzzle that you are trying to plug in.
"You can't put new stuff in. We were out Tuesday trying to prepare for this game and working on something as simple as out-of-bounds defense and LaPointe was not there. Florida scored eight points, maybe 11 on out-of-bounds plays. We can't give up 10 or 11 points on out-of-bounds plays in a game. We dont't have that kind of margin. I feel sorry for our players for that because they are out there playing as hard as they can try."
LaPointe, who admitted he felt terrible during the game, finished with four points and one rebound in 25 minutes. Williams had 14 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes. Stallings had kind words for both of the seniors.
"They are just two guys of impeccable character," Stallings said. "Neither one is the most talented player in the world. But they give you everything they have."
A pair of 3-pointers by point guard Russell Lakey sparked the Commodores final rally as they trimmed an 11-point Florida advantage to one-point with 6:12 left.
"What happens in games that get close is that you throw it down to the block and something happens where you are forced to double-team somebody and it creates an opening for somebody else," Stallings said. "When it gets to that point in the game we have nobody down there we can throw it to who turns it up and makes the goal for us.
"Every shot we are taking is a difficult, contested shot. You don't win games on difficult, contested shots. You win games because you throw it down low some place, someone whips the other guy's butt and you get somebody in foul trouble. That's not our team right now."
The Commodores close out the regular season Saturday afternoon at 1 at Auburn.