As the ball bounced off the rim and caromed toward the hands of a Kentucky rebounder, Jeffery Taylor stood at the free-throw line, cracked a smile, mumbled to himself and laughed.
However, the way Taylor and his Vanderbilt teammates shot from the free-throw line on Saturday was no laughing matter.
The Commodores made just 15-of-23 (65.2 percent) foul shots and ill-timed misses late kept them from staying with top-ranked Kentucky in an 83-74 road loss Saturday at Rupp Arena.
“We missed some big free throws that would have kept the game within one possession,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “You have to make those in a situation like this because your margin [for error] with these guys is going to be tough.”
The performance from the foul line was the latest chapter of a reoccurring trend in losses.
Entering the weekend, Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-5) ranked second in the Southeastern Conference in free-throw shooting percentage (70.8), behind only Kentucky (72.1). In fact, the Commodores were just three days removed from their second-best performance at the line this season. At home against South Carolina on Wednesday, they made 25-of-28 (89.3 percent). Only an 8-for-8 performance at South Carolina last month was better.
In their nine losses, though, their performance from the foul line has been dreadful. They have shot 65.2 percent (94-of-144) from the foul line in losses and much better — 72.6 percent (331-of-456) — in victories.
“We’re not really concerned. We’re a good free-throw shooting team,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “Sometimes they just don’t fall.”
Against Kentucky (28-1, 14-0) the misses came at bad times.
After making 10 of 12 in the first half, the Commodores missed six of 11 in the second half.
With less than 10 minutes left, Taylor missed two when he had an opportunity to cut Kentucky's lead to one. With a chance to tie the game with 4:27 left, John Jenkins, the SEC’s leading free-throw shooter (85.2 percent), missed the second of two free throws.
Just more than a minute later, Taylor drove to the basket and drew a foul from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Down 69-65, Taylor could have made it a one-possession game. But he missed both and Kentucky’s Terrence Jones grabbed the rebound on the second miss, drawing a foul from Goulbourne.
Jones made both free throws at the other end and gave the Wildcats a six-point lead with 2:42 left.
For the game, the Wildcats were 17-of-20 (85 percent) from the foul line. Stellar free-throw shooting from John Calipari coached teams has been rare (i.e., the 2008 Memphis team that lost the national championship game at the foul line).
Taylor finished the game just 1-for-5 at the foul line and dropped a success rate for the season to a career-worst 64.1 percent. Of Vanderbilt’s starters, only 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli is shooting worse (61.7 percent). However, Ezeli made 5-of-6 against Kentucky.
As has been the case many times this season, Taylor again left a couple free throws short against Kentucky, bouncing off the front of the rim.
“I’m a senior so I don’t think the crowd bothered me that much,” Taylor said. “I shot it good. It felt good. It just didn’t go in for me.”
With just two regular-season games remaining — including the last home game on Tuesday against Florida — the conference tournament looming next week and the NCAA Tournament on tap in two weeks, the Commodores hope Saturday wasn’t a preview of the things to come.
In each of their last three NCAA Tournament games — all losses — Vanderbilt shot less than 70 percent from the foul line.
Ezeli was the only current Vanderbilt player around for the 2008 opening round loss to Siena but he didn’t play in the game as he redshirted that season.
This year’s top six players — five seniors and a junior — contributed to horrid performances the last two years. In 2010, the Commodores shot 58.7 percent (17-of-29) from the line in a loss to Murray State. Last season, they weren’t much better, making just 60.9 percent (14-of-23) against Richmond.
One or two more makes could have made a difference — Vanderbilt lost those two games by a combined four points.
“It is just something that happens,” Jenkins said on Saturday. “We’ve got to get back in the gym and work on it. We’ll be fine.”