In a 56-33 defeat to Arkansas in mid-January, Vanderbilt looked like a team that had lost more than 85 percent of its scoring and three upperclassmen to the NBA Draft from their 2012 SEC Tournament Championship squad.
Appearing hesitant against the Razorbacks' press and indecisive in their halfcourt offense, the Commodores committed a season-high 26 turnovers and shot 25 percent in a sluggish effort. Had junior forward Rod Odom not hit an off-balanced 3-pointer late in the first half, Vanderbilt would have gone to the locker room with single digits in points.
On Thursday, arguably one of the nation's most improved teams opened 10 of 21 from beyond-the-arc and turned the ball over just 12 times in a 75-72 win over the Razorbacks. The majority of the miscues occurred in the final six minutes when Arkansas nearly erased a double-digit deficit.
Vanderbilt (15-16) withstood the rally despite finishing 17 of 30 from the free-throw line. Vanderbilt was led by forward Rod Odom with 20 points, while guard Kyle Fuller added 19.
“Earlier in the season we would have lost this game,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “The foul shots, the turnovers would have freaked us out and we would have lost. I'm real proud of my team for persevering and making the plays we had to in order to win.”
Using an assortment of ball fakes to remain patient against Arkansas' full-court press, Vanderbilt had little trouble advancing the ball past midcourt throughout the first 30 minutes. When the Commodores defeated the pressure, Stallings' forwards set hard screens on several possessions and his guards made the extra pass to free open shooters. A 3-pointer by Fuller from the left corner with 3:09 remaining slowed an Arkansas run and gave the Commodores a 70-61 lead.
“Coach has been telling us to make plays for each other because if we make the extra pass our teammates are going to make it for us,” Fuller said. “I feel like if we keep playing for each other then things will really work out.”
The Razorbacks responded with a 7-0 run to whittle the lead to two with 50 seconds left, but could not get any closer. Arkansas (19-13) had a chance to tie the game when Michael Qualls stole the ball from Dai-Jon Parker with 32 seconds remaining and found a streaking Marshawn Powell, but the Razorbacks' forward missed a short jumper.
For an Arkansas team expected to make the NCAA tournament at the start of the season, the Razorbacks will have to settle for the NIT at best. Arkansas, which has lost its opening game of the SEC Tournament in five straight seasons, was led by guard B.J. Young with 16 points.
“I thought our guys had the right mindset coming in to the tournament,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It's disappointing for me from that standpoint. Vandy played better than we did today and we'll learn from it.”
Vanderbilt advances to face Kentucky in the SEC quarterfinals on Friday night. The Commodores lost two close games to the Wildcats earlier in the season, including a 74-70 loss at Rupp Arena on Feb. 20.
“They drove us, they threw it inside and scored it seemed like at will,” Stallings said. “If that happens again, we'll lose again. I don't want to profess we're ready to win a close game against Kentucky. I anticipate that it will be a very competitive game."
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