I can't tell you how proud I am of this team. The closing minutes were a clinic on how to put a team away.
If that doesn't get you excited for March, I don't know what will.
Let me sum up the end of the game.
With five minutes to play, John Jenkins knocked down a jumper to put Vanderbilt ahead 61-60. The 'Dores would never trail again. In that final stretch run, the team hit 17 of 20 free throws and committed zero turnovers against Mississippi's full-court press. It was a clinic on how to win in the NCAA tournament.
Teams that get behind will try every way possible to extend the length of the game. If Vandy misses a couple more free throws, they lose. The first 35 minutes may have had a sloppy feel, but the final five minutes were brilliant on the offensive side.
With Ole Miss penetrating well all game and hitting some crazy threes at the end, the Commodores had multiple chances to give the game away. They had ice in their veins and performed incredibly well. As ESPN's Jay Williams said, you gotta hit free throws to close out games. Well, Vandy sure did that.
As I wrote in my game preview, Ole Miss needed a win in the worst way. Vanderbilt took their best shot, trailing 16-5 early in the contest. Vandy didn't let them get away, quickly closing the gap to a manageable margin.
Jeffery Taylor and A.J. Ogilvy carried the load early, combining for 23 of Vanderbilt's 30 first-half points. Both Andre Walker and Jermaine Beal were held scoreless in the first half. Beal rebounded with 14 in the second, but Walker was saddled with foul trouble all night. He fouled out with about 10 minutes left in the second frame. That has to be some kind of record, right?
The real star of the night was Ogilvy. I've been critical of the Australian disappearing at times, but tonight he was everywhere. He scored 27 points on 8-of-10 shooting and went 11 for 13 from the charity stripe. Most of those free throws were in the closing minutes to preserve the victory.
Couple other thoughts from the night:
Ole Miss Fan Support
I know that Mississippi has an incredible fanbase. For whatever reason, it didn't seem like it on ESPNU. The crowd seemed dead the whole night. Their only bright spot was the USA!, USA! chant when A.J. went to the line. We get it—he's not from America. Regardless, I always laugh when an opposing crowd does it. Maybe I have flashbacks of Hacksaw Jim Duggan.
Vanderbilt's Play to Open the Second Half
Note to other coaches: Vandy is ALWAYS going to run a slip screen for A.J. coming out of the first half. Don't they have people to watch tape for them?
John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley
Our backcourt duo of 2011 hit some big shots tonight. They only combined for 13 points, but all felt like they came at big moments. Maybe they didn't, but it still seemed that way to me. I think we're in good hands next season.
Vandy's Free Throw Advantage
This is straight from Vandy's official site: "Vanderbilt has hit 251 of 346 free throws in 11 league games (72.5 percent), making more shots than seven other SEC teams have attempted." I love the aggressiveness.
So, I'm not any kind of basketball scholar. That's evident. It looked like the Commodores let the Rebels penetrate all game long. Ole Miss must have hit eight to 12 short jumpers after getting by a defender. Maybe the 'Dores are trying to force them into the paint where a big guy can help out. It didn't have that feeling to it though. It made me think that John Wall is going to eat us alive on Saturday.
Bring on the Cats!
I wanted to close with a few thoughts on Saturday's game against Kentucky. With tonight's win, it is another no-lose situation for Kevin Stallings' squad. A loss wouldn't affect seeding, but a victory would take the Commodores to new heights this season.
A win on Saturday puts the possibility of a 2- or 3-seed back on the table. You might disagree, but the numbers are there, and most prognosticators already have them at a 4-seed.
Either way, this squad has the talent to be playing on the second weekend of the tournament. With a little bit of luck, you could see Vanderbilt in the Elite Eight playing for a spot in the Final Four.
One can only hope.