Just when it appeared to be playing up to its preseason hype, Vanderbilt pulled a disappearing act.
The little things the Commodores did so well during an eight-game winning streak vanished in a 78-77 overtime loss to No. 18 Mississippi State on Saturday. Surrendering a double-digit lead at home likely cost them a chance to jump back into the Top 25. More importantly, Vanderbilt (14-5) suffered its first Southeastern Conference loss, fell to 4-1 in league play and dropped a game behind first-place Kentucky.
“We had a letdown. That is all there is to it,” Vanderbilt forward Lance Goulbourne said. “We didn’t have the same mindset we had in the first half. To let a team score 18 points in four minutes is just a complete letdown in intensity.”
Over the previous eight games, the Commodores had pulled out the stops on defense. During that stretch they allowed 58.1 points, held opponents to 38.1 percent shooting from the field and a 31.8 percent clip from the 3-point line. They also had a rebounding margin of plus-6.5.
All of this contributed to an average scoring edge of 13.2 points per game.
Against Mississippi State (16-4, 3-2), Vanderbilt got off to a good start. The Commodores jumped out to a 13-point lead and led 39-28 at halftime. The Bulldogs missed 11 of their first 15 shots and made just 28.6 percent in the first half. They were worse from 3-point range, missing nine of their first 10 attempts.
“I’ve been coming up here for 22 years and this is one of the best defensive basketball teams they’ve had up here in that stretch,” Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. “Vanderbilt has always been able to shoot, but has never defended like they are this year.”
After halftime, it was a different story.
The Bulldogs scored 20 of the first 22 points in the first five minutes of the second half. They forced Vanderbilt into four turnovers during the stretch, capitalizing on every possession and grabbing the lead. The Commodores battled back from 10 down to tie and then regained the lead in overtime. But they couldn’t hold on, losing their sixth straight overtime game and third of the season.
Mississippi State couldn’t miss from 3-point range after the break, hitting nine of its final 10 3-pointers. The Bulldogs shot 55.8 percent (19-of-34) from the field. Many of their 3-pointers came on open looks, though a couple were high-arching shots over leaping defenders.
“We kind of wanted them to go inside more than shoot 3s,” Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins said. “They were going inside, kicking out, hitting 3-pointers. We weren’t recovering fast enough.”
The Commodores also got beat on the boards, losing the rebounding battle 37-33. Center Festus Ezeli accounted for nearly half, with a career-high 14 rebounds.
In fact, the halftime margin probably could have been worse if not for Mississippi State’s eight offensive rebounds. The Bulldogs finished with 12, converting them into nine second-chance points.
Mississippi State also did what many opponents fail to do at Memorial Gymnasium – get to the free-throw line. They were 14-of-21 from the foul line, while Vanderbilt was just 5-of-9. It was only third time this season that an opponent has attempted more free throws than Vanderbilt at Memorial.
“We got beat at the foul line,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They took it inside against us. We shot jump shots. They threw it inside so they won.”
But again the biggest storyline of the game – as it has been in many of Vanderbilt’s losses – was the Commodores’ inability to hold onto a double-digit lead.
In four of their five losses, Vanderbilt has squandered leads. In two of those, the Commodores led by as many as 10 points in the second half. They were up on the road at Louisville by nine before losing in overtime. Against Indiana State at home, they led by eight with 6:31 remaining only to lose by six.
Stallings seemed puzzled after the game on Saturday night, referencing the team’s experience – five seniors and one junior make up the team’s top six players. Still, the Commodores have yet to find an answer for the late game collapses.
“I actually thought we were going to win this one because I was here this time too,” said Ezeli, who missed 10 games due to knee injuries. “It is all good – next time.”