By Zac Ellis
ST. LOUIS – The scoreboard showed 16.1 seconds left when the buzzer sounded, subs entered the floor and a pair of Vanderbilt seniors exited an SEC basketball game one last time.
On Wednesday at the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt’s Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson strolled to the sideline, hugged head coach Bryce Drew and found themselves engulfed in warm embraces and high-fives from teammates. Behind the Vandy bench, pockets of Commodore fans applauded the upperclassman duo, a pair that truthfully deserved more pomp and circumstances than their final tournament game provided.
In that moment, the 13-seed Dores trailed No. 12 Georgia 78-62 in the opening game of the 2018 SEC Tournament. Vanderbilt was mere seconds from the end to a disappointing season. But the ultimate 78-62 loss to the Dawgs did little to overshadow the storied careers of both LaChance and Roberson, an unselfish duo who put the Commodores on their backs in 2018.
“Really proud of our team, how we battled all year, especially Jeff and Riley,” Drew said. “They were exceptional all year. I wish we had a little bit of firepower to go with these two. We talked about the foundation they had laid at Vanderbilt and how this is going to be home for them for years and years to come. This game, and this locker room, is about thanking those guys for all they’ve done for us.”
Vanderbilt was unable to extend the careers of LaChance and Roberson in the SEC Tournament. A red-hot Georgia squad opened the game on a 10-0 run and led by as many as 25 points late in the first half. The Commodores trailed 43-22 at halftime and weren’t able to slice away at the Bulldogs’ edge after intermission. Georgia went on to score 16 points off turnovers and outrebound the Dores, 41-32.
In the end, Vanderbilt closed its seniors’ final season 12-20 overall and 6-12 in the SEC. But despite a down year, LaChance and Roberson performed like All-SEC players down the stretch. Roberson scored 20 points or more in 13 games, with LaChance notching seven 20-point outings. Their production became more important following a season-ending injury to fellow senior Matthew Fisher-Davis against Kentucky on Jan. 13.
The result was a senior duo that embraced the burden of leadership. Roberson ended the regular season as an All-SEC Second Team honoree after finishing ranked in the top five in five different statistical categories. LaChance was often just as clutch; his 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left lifted Vanderbilt to an 81-80 win over Mississippi State on Feb. 14. And on Wednesday, LaChance (17 points) and Roberson (16) closed their career by pacing the Dores’ scoring effort one last time.
Roberson said he and LaChance wouldn’t shy away from their roles on the roster.
“As seniors, it’s our responsibility to pick the team up – its next man up,” Roberson said. “We had a larger responsibility. It was just being more aggressive, still not going out of the system, just taking a few more shots and getting guys more involved.”
“It’s just leaving no regret,” Roberson continued. “At the end of the day, we have what we have, and we tried to make the most of it.”
Drew praised his seniors’ grind in the midst of a losing season, serves as a testament to their character, he said.
“Where we were in the standings this year, anytime you’re not competing for a championship, sometimes it’s easy to become selfish and not work as hard,” Drew said. “I thought they were the exact opposite of that. They tried to help other guys get better even more, and they played their best basketball these last two months of their careers. We talked about character. That’s a credit to their character. Even though we went through adversity, they continued to fight through it.”
Now LaChance and Roberson move on from a Commodore career that saw its share of bright spots. From SEC Tournament runs to rivalry wins vs. Tennessee and appearances in March Madness, Vanderbilt’s senior duo played as big a role as any players in those moments.
But in their final press conference as student-athletes at Vanderbilt – on a ground-floor stage of St. Louis’ Scottrade Center -- both seniors reflected on lessons learned as Commodores under Drew and his staff. Those are the memories they won’t soon forget, they said.
“There’s a lot more to life than basketball,” LaChance said. “Coach and his staff came in and really helped us grow as men. Obviously, they taught us a lot on the basketball court, but the stuff outside of basketball is the stuff I’ll definitely carry with me the rest of my life.”
Added Roberson: “Any coach can teach basketball. They really focused on teaching us to be young men and helping us develop in the end.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.