As Kevin Stallings said in his postgame radio interview, college basketball can be “cruel”. Trying to organize your thoughts and cope with a difficult loss is a helpless feeling- especially when you feel as if you’ve done everything you can do.
With Vanderbilt trailing 58-57 with 19 seconds left and the ball out of a timeout, the Commodores couldn’t have executed any better. The plan was to try and give Kedren Johnson a chance to drive to the basket and create a good shot. Johnson is adept at using his long arms to extend to the basket and score, using the ability to jump of the “wrong foot” to throw off the timing of shot blockers. He can also find open shooters if the defense helps. After a poor first half, KJ had found his rhythm with several effective drives.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin elected to go to a small lineup for the last play, even taking out his best shot blocker and rebounder Jarnell Stokes. It was a curious decision, but one that allowed the Vols to have a quicker lineup to defend what Martin new was coming: high ball screens for Johnson to set him free to the basket. UT had trouble early in the half at times with defending these screen and roll plays. Johnson, Dai-Jon Parker, and Kyle Fuller of VU would get the screen from Center Josh Henderson. Stokes and UT’s other big men struggled in two areas:
1) If they switched, VU’s guards would drive to the basket, score or get fouled
2) When UT tried to hedge and recover, Henderson had a career game rolling to the hoop or “slipping” the screen (faking a screen- then cutting hard to the basket when Stokes hedged out). ESPN’s Color Analyst and former Wake Forrest Coach Dino Gaudio did an excellent job of explaining this during the telecast.
Martin decided to adjust by putting an all guard lineup in and switching every ball screen on the final possession.
But Vanderbilt recognized this as the possession started. As they weaved the ball on the perimeter with their high screens trying to trigger KJ, they were able to get him switched to the defender they wanted to exploit: walk-on guard Brandon Lopez.
Lopez was in because of the injury to Trae Golden, who had injured his hamstring in the first half. Once Johnson got the ball back and recognized he had Lopez on him, he started his drive with 6 seconds to go without a screen. Just a straight up one-on-one drive left down the lane.
Vanderbilt had its best 3 point shooter- Freshman Kevin Bright- stationed in the corner. Skylar McBee of Tennessee chose not to leave him to help on Johnson. Bright had hit a huge 3 in an almost identical situation in Nashville against Ole Miss (the play that pre-ceded Marshall Henderson’s game tying 30+ foot buzzer bomb).
As Johnson read McBee, he saw that he had the space to drive. Lopez however, did a reasonable job defending. He didn’t get beat straight to the basket and was able to get Johnson to angle away from the hoop just a hair—and did so without fouling. He extended his hands straight up as KJ took the shot.
Any coach will tell you, ideally the last shot needs to go up with enough time to crash the offensive boards for a second chance. Again, Vanderbilt did this perfectly as Johnson released his shot over Lopez with just over 2 seconds left.
The shot Johnson took- though not easy- was one that he has hit many times this season. If he tried it 10 times, he probably hits at least 6. Any coach would take that. But the ball rimmed out.
However, Bright crashed the boards from the left corner and was not boxed out, and the ball took a funny carom off of the rim. It went right to Bright with just a tenth of a second or two left—maybe a foot away from the rim with his momentum heading right there.
Perhaps Bright hurried his follow knowing how little time was left. As a result, in Stallings words, he “short-armed” it, and it hit the front of the rim. He got it off in time, but it never had a chance. In fairness, had Bright taken the full follow through, he may NOT have beaten the buzzer. The crowd erupted. Vanderbilt’s bench reacted in disappointment.
This is the razor’s edge of college basketball. Martin’s Vols have now won key back-to-back home games with stops on the final possession with a one point lead. Were they good or lucky on each of those plays? Probably both. Either way, their season has life.
For Vanderbilt, they have now lost 3 SEC games in such fashion. All 3 easily could have gone their way. But they didn’t. Stallings will have to regroup with his young team and come back fighting against Alabama on Saturday. He has worked doggedly to bring this team along, and will hope to be rewarded soon. 4 of the next 5 games for the Commodores are at home, including a return trip to Nashville from the Vols.
Photo by: The AP/Chattanooga Times Free Press