If there's one team Vanderbilt doesn't want to face in the SEC Tournament, it's the scrappy…
The Houdini-Dores: VU 96, UGA 94 (OT)
There's no need for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team to feel shady or guilty. It did nothing illegal on Thursday night at Memorial Gym, but within a basketball-specific context, it certainly stole an SEC East game from the snake-bitten Georgia Bulldogs. In one of those "how the heck did we win that thing?" head-scratchers that isn't worth dwelling on, the VU crew defied the odds and maintained its hold on second place in the division. The Dores remained in line for a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament by beating Georgia, 96-94, in a thriller that left Vandy Nation exhausted, concerned, and momentarily relieved.
For 39 minutes and seven seconds, the visitors from Athens flatly outplayed the Dores. Coach Mark Fox had the Bulldogs ready to roll, and with field goal shooting that remained over 47 percent throughout regulation time, UGA kept scoring in the latter stages of this white-knuckle night fight. Five nights after Vandy put Kentucky's offense in a straitjacket, Georgia strolled into Nashville and found appreciably smooth sailing at the offensive end of the floor. With just 53 seconds left in regulation, the underdogs and their bench boss had out-Foxed the students of Kevin Stallings. The Florida Gators – sitting at 9-4 – were about to see Vandy fall into a second-place tie in the East, with UF hosting the Dores next week in Gainesville.
It was clear that in those 39-plus minutes, Georgia had exceeded Vandy in what one would recognize as a "normal" basketball game: You know, 25- to 30-second possessions, straightforward defense (or at least attempts at the same), just play ball. In a court of law, the district attorney would have established motive, location and opportunity, fingering the defendant as an unrepentant criminal whose morals were unworthy of respect.
In most cases, that kind of trial would be won by the prosecution. However, there are always a few cases when someone gets sloppy, a procedure isn't followed through to the end, and the letter of the law says that the legal game wasn't played with a requisite amount of precision. In these instances, the defense walks out of the courtroom with an acquittal, preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
In basketball, this is called the "endgame phase," a unique creature discovered and unwrapped in the final 60-90 seconds, when it's advisable to foul; when trailing teams unhesitatingly allow an opponent to score one point in the hope of getting two back, or score two in the hope of getting three back. In "endgame basketball," the normal flow of basketball doesn't apply, and so it becomes essential for the team with the lead to uphold its 39 minutes of excellence by hitting that one 15-foot standstill shot which is so essential to late-season success in college hoops: the free throw. Make it, and you do what sober, vigilant and responsible prosecutors do: seal the issue without allowing a loophole to hijack your strong case.
But oh, if you miss foul shots in the realm of endgame basketball, the adversary you've owned for 98 percent of a game can rise up in the final two percent of the proceedings. That's what happened to Georgia in this game, as the Dawgs – leading 77-75 with 24 seconds left – missed a pair of foul shots and watched Vandy big man A.J. Ogilvy tie the game with a tip-in at the 16-second mark of regulation. Everyone in the building knew that Georgia needed to win in regulation, given the psychological dynamics that usually accompany a blown lead by a youthful road underdog, and when UGA's Travis Leslie missed two shots – one on a putback Vandy never should have allowed – an overtime period had arrived. Just as significantly, the Bulldogs' stranglehold on this showdown had evaporated.
The overtime period wasn't quite a foregone conclusion; Georgia never fully went away, and Fox's forces made VU earn everything it got. However, the Dores – powered by 12-of-12 free throw shooting on a night when they were a spectacular 35 of 39 at the charity stripe – found their way to the finish line first, keeping a number of crucial goals in sight.
How does one evaluate such a game? Let's go to the post-trial… err, postgame… pressers and see what some of the principals had to say.
Leslie – a fearless guard who led Georgia with 22 points and displayed a warrior's spirit against bigger Vanderbilt bodies in the paint, especially on the final sequence of regulation – was caught in an in-between place. Like the prosecutor who knew he had the goods on his opponent, Leslie said that "We couldn't get any calls and they got a lot of calls, and that's what got us." But like the lawyer who also knew that the other side won fairly, Leslie was gracious enough to allow that "They (the Commodores) have a great team. They're definitely a little hungrier this year. I wish them the best of luck. They're a great team and played well tonight."
That's good stuff, but the Vanderbilt players and coaches were even better in the way they handled this game. Jermaine Beal – who atoned for his brain cramp against Kentucky by throwing down 28 points and sticking all six foul shots in overtime – was man enough to acknowledge VU's need for an accomplice in this Harry Houdini special: "Andre made a big shot and A.J. had a game-tying tip-in, but Georgia helped us out by missing free throws."
Beal kept it real, and that's a very good thing to see. Vandy got all the material benefits of a win, it's true, but this kind of performance won't cut the mustard in March Madness, and it won't be good enough in Gainesville next Tuesday, with that all-important No. 2 seed in the East hanging in the balance.
Kevin Stallings, for his part, took an interesting and – upon a brief bit of reflection – a very wise tack in his remarks. The VU coach said, "I was proud of our guys. They kept playing and kept battling. We finally got it over the top and got it to OT. It was a tough, hard-fought game. [Georgia] is a good team and they're a relatively difficult team for us for some reason."
Stallings publicly praised his team, which makes sense, knowing that he can always get after his players in private and challenge them the way they need to be challenged. Moreover, the reference to Georgia being a tough opponent "for some reason" allows just enough vagueness to suggest a slight undertone of disappointment. That's a pitch-perfect way to balance satisfaction in the wake of victory with concern at the quality of Thursday's performance.
Stallings was also impressive in that – much like Beal – he didn't try to hide from or deny the larger reality at work in Memorial Gym against Georgia: "Our guys were hung over all week from the Kentucky game. You try to do what you can [as a coach] and recognize it. It came out on Monday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, it looked like we were someplace else. I was not surprised we struggled and not surprised that this was a hard-earned win."
That comment shows why Kevin Stallings is such an asset to the VU community. Truth-telling like that takes the pressure off the team while being completely honest and, most importantly, refreshingly human. Sports teams (think of hockey teams in the NHL Playoffs) are sometimes well served by telling lies to the press or covering up various events in an obviously shadowy manner, but an ideal situation exists when a coach can level with the media – and, for that matter, his players – and improve the climate in his locker room as a result.
Yes, this was a fortuitous escape against a last-place team. Yes, VU has to be a lot better against Arkansas and then Florida in two relatively quick turnarounds. Yes, the effort level needs to improve in Fayetteville (first things first, right?).
Just don't worry too much, though. Houdini still lives. Vandy got acquitted and will not have to visit the prison known as third place in the East… at least for the time being. A win's a win, and Kevin Stallings knows that while he has to get more from his men, he's a step closer to a first-round bye in the opening leg of VU's postseason.
Maybe now, Vanderbilt can forget about the Kentucky soul-crusher and play well enough to not need endgame basketball in future SEC showdowns.
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