The reason for Jermaine Beal’s tears prior to tip-off Saturday was pretty obvious.
After the game, his emotions were a little more difficult to decipher. Were they a reaction – as was the case in pregame – to his final home game at Vanderbilt? Or did they have more to do with the fact that the 13th-ranked Commodores lost that game to an opponent that had dropped its previous six contests?
Either one — or any combination of both — was valid given that a 77-73 defeat to South Carolina hardly was the sendoff his teammates, coaches or the sellout crowd of 14,316 envisioned.
“I knew eventually (this) day would come,” Beal said. “I was doing fine and then it hit me before the game, kind of warming up a little bit. Then, I got refocused and it hit me again after the game.”
In between, he scored a team-high 21 points, 14 of them in the second half including his team’s final nine as it attempted to rally from an eight-point deficit over the final five minutes.
His 3-pointer with 2:09 to play tied the score 69-69, and twice thereafter he got the Commodores to within two but no closer.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t — as a group — do more to send Jermaine out the right way,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “That was not right for him. I thought he played very well, but we just had some no-shows (Saturday). … We had too many guys who didn’t show up to play the way you have to play and the way you have to compete to win in this league.”
The absence of a competitive fire was not necessarily obvious for much of the contest.
Vanderbilt (23-7, 12-4 in the SEC) broke a 21-21 tie when Darshawn McClellan made a layup and free throw with 6:24 to play in the first half. The Commodores maintained an advantage — and five times pushed it to as many as 10 points — for a span of 18:35.
South Carolina (15-15, 6-10) finally laid bare the fatal flaw with a 16-0, which included 10 points from SEC Player of the Year candidate Devan Downey. It started with a dunk by Sam Muldrow but got traction when Downey made a pair of 3-pointers 22 seconds apart and got his team within one.
“They hit us with a nice little run,” Beal said.
The knockout punch effectively came when Downey made his fourth – and final – 3-pointer with 1:49 to play, a mere 20 seconds after Beal had tied it with one of his own.
Downey led all scorers with 26 points, 22 of which came after halftime. Muldrow added 20, 13 of which came in the first 20 minutes.
“We kept fighting in the contest,” Downey said. “…My coaches told me at halftime to keep shooting and every time I take a shot, I think it’s going in.”
The loss had no effect on the Commodores’ seeding for next week’s Southeastern Conference — they finished second in the Eastern Division — but it does keep them from carrying any momentum into the event.
It also likely provides an emotional jolt to all of them.
“It might make us more hungry, more focused,” Beal said. “We have to bounce back. The tournament’s in our backyard. … Our team has a lot more left in them. We just have to refocus and look ahead.”
• Play was stopped briefly with 13 minutes to play when junior guard Brad Tinsley sustained an apparent knee injury just in front of the South Carolina bench.
He did not return and watched the remainder of the game with a bag of ice on the knee. Afterward, the trainer called it a sprain and said Tinsley is likely to play in the SEC tournament.
The sophomore had just two points and one assist. When he went out, though, VU led by eight.
• Downey and A.J. Ogilvy came into the game first and second, respectively, in the SEC in free throws made Downey had 148, which was three more than Ogilvy.
The Commodores’ center made five of six and gained slightly on Downey, who was 4-for-6.
• Vanderbilt’s point total was its highest in a loss this season. The previous high was 72 at Kentucky on Jan. 30. In all five other losses, the point total was fewer than 70.
• This was the fifth time in Vanderbilt’s last six games the final margin was four points or fewer. The Commodores won three of the previous four.