Before Sunday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game against Kentucky, Vanderbilt senior forward Jeffery Taylor stood up in front of his teammates and spoke from experience.
Granted it wasn’t much experience, but it got the message across.
“A lot of people in their careers or in their basketball lives they don’t get a chance to play in a championship game a lot,” he said. “I have only played in two championship games my whole life. One was the state championship game in high school and one was a ninth grade championship. I just wanted the guys to know that they don’t come around a lot. You don’t get to play in them a lot and you definitely don’t win championship games a lot.
“I just wanted the guys to know to really cherish the opportunity, respect the game and most of all just have fun with it. And I think we did all of that.”
The pre-game speech hit home as the Commodores captured their first tournament crown in 61 years. And now Taylor gets to return to the site of his previous championship victory.
Vanderbilt opens the NCAA Tournament in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday. The Commodores (24-10) are the fifth seed in the East Regional and play No. 12 Harvard (26-4) in the opening round. The Crimson won the Ivy League regular-season championship and are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946.
Second and third-round games will be held on the University of New Mexico’s campus at the 18,000-seat arena affectionately known as “The Pit.” Taylor captured a state championship there while a senior at Hobbs High, which is more than 300 miles from Albuquerque.
“It is a really amazing place to play, especially when it is filled up,” Taylor said. “It is just a fun environment, a fun place to play. Albuquerque is a really beautiful city so it will be fun for us.”
Even so, the Commodores had hoped to avoid the west.
With Louisville and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena holding opening round games, Vanderbilt was eager to stay within driving distance. Instead it will leave on Tuesday for their third straight NCAA Tournament trip out West.
The Commodores lost to Murray State in San Jose, Calif., in 2010 and dropped another first-round game last year to Richmond in Denver.
“You always hope for more but it could always be worse,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “I was hoping for a Friday site just because of playing [Sunday] and all that went on. I would have loved to have been in Nashville. So I got the wild, wild West and Thursday. But that is OK. It is what it is. We just have to go play and be ready to go when it is time.”
Though fans might not be able to make the 1,200-mile trip to Albuquerque, they made a point to express their appreciation and support later on Sunday night. More than 500 people showed up outside of Memorial Gymnasium to welcome home the team when the bus rolled in from the airport at 8:35 p.m.
Senior forward Lance Goulbourne led the way through the crowd as he hoisted the tournament trophy.
“We fought hard for four years,” Goulbourne said. “The culmination of four years is not even as much of the feeling of happiness that we have for this one day. It is pretty rewarding for us.”
Fans draped the street in between Vanderbilt’s football stadium and Memorial Gymnasium. Some leaned out of the adjacent parking garage, positioning themselves for a peek as their team returned.
Goulbourne, Taylor and guard Brad Tinsley were briefly ushered away from the media room to return for a curtain call. Stallings snuck in the back way, avoiding the crowd. But his assistant coaches urged him to go outside and soak in the black and gold exuberance.
It capped off an emotional day for the veteran coach as he choked back tears on Sunday night.
“This is one of my happiest days as a Vanderbilt head coach — maybe my happiest,” he said. “I’ve had some happy ones. This certainly is right up there. ... When you invest a lot, you care a lot. I think what I am most proud of is the investment that has occurred by this group of young men in our program. So to see those guys get to experience what they experienced [Sunday], that was a great feeling for me.”