March 9, 2007
Vanderbilt Left with Much to Prove
By Will Matthews
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BAND TOGETHER: Wear White During Post-Season Play
ATLANTA - Vanderbilt did just about everything Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament that it set out to do - everything except win.
Six days after playing what was roundly considered to be its poorest game of the season last Saturday against Arkansas in Nashville - a game in which Vanderbilt's defense was almost non-existent in a 15 point Senior Day loss to cap an otherwise successful regular season - the Commodores played much better defensively in its postseason rematch with the Razorbacks, shot 15 percentage points higher and was in as good a position to win as the Commodores could have hoped in the game's waning moments.
But junior guard Shan Foster's open three-point attempt from the left corner with six seconds left bounced off the rim, leaving Vanderbilt with its only two-game conference losing streak of the year.
"It was a great shot," said Foster, who scored 13 points on the night and pulled down six rebounds. "Derrick (Byars) made a great play to get me the ball. Unfortunately, it just didn't go down tonight."
Friday, then, was an early and disappointing end to SEC play for Vanderbilt, which spent the entire year proving naysayers wrong on its way to a 10-6 regular season conference record and a second place finish in the SEC East, but which couldn't quite get it done Friday on the conference's biggest stage.
"This is a little disheartening because we felt like losing to Arkansas a week ago would have been a good motivational tool to prepare for today," said senior guard Dan Cage, who hit two three-pointers Saturday and scored 12 points. "Unfortunately, we didn't make the plays that we needed to make in order to come out on top."
For the Commodores, the common refrain in the immediate aftermath of Friday's loss was one of frustration that they were unable to prove on a national stage that they are a team to be reckoned with and a team deserving of the number two seed it brought with it into this weekend's tournament.
"I think our guys feel like people have doubted them all season long," said Head Coach Kevin Stallings. "There are a number of things that were written, a number of things that were said so these guys are not immune. People see that we beat Florida, and all anybody talks about for the next week is the fact that we got fined for rushing the court. Nobody says anything about how they played."
Stallings emphasized during Friday's post game press conference that Vanderbilt was the only SEC team not to lose two conference games in a row during the regular season and that it is now only one of two teams - Florida being the other - to have lost consecutive conference games only once all year.
"These guys have been remarkably consistent and remarkably competitive," Stallings said. "But I just don't think that they feel like people respect who they are and how they play. I think that is just how they feel."
But in a tournament in which they could have silenced all doubters, the Commodores will leave with what Cage said is a chip on their shoulders and the feeling that they still have a whole lot to prove to a whole lot of people.
Cage said the lack of respect that he feels his team has generally received during the course of the year is somewhat understandable being that Vanderbilt started the year losing three of its first four games, including a home loss to Furman.
"And look at out starting line-up," Cage said. "We start four guards and our center, especially in the SEC, is usually inferior to a lot of the big time players that we play against."
But Cage said Vanderbilt prides itself on being a scrappy team that plays with a high level of intensity to make up for whatever brawn it might lack. And, he said, the Commodores are a better team than what they showed Friday.
Common opinion holds that even with Friday's loss Vanderbilt is still deserving of an NCAA tournament bid and that they will receive a birth when the 65-team field is announced Sunday.
If indeed an NCAA Tournament bid comes to fruition, Cage says the Commodores will be out to show the nation what he says they have showed to the rest of the SEC during the regular season - that they are in fact one of the nation's elite teams.
"This will definitely give us a chip on our shoulder," Cage said. "We still feel like we have a lot to prove to people and a lot to improve on over the course of the next eight or nine days. And we are going to have to if we are going to be successful playing the kind of high-caliber teams that will be in the NCAA's."
Will Matthews spent three years as an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group in Southern California. He is currently in his third year at Vanderbilt Divinity School.