While most of the rest of the SEC took on opponents from the Big XII, Texas A&M looked to continue their hot streak in conference play as they welcomed the Vanderbilt Commodores to Reed Arena on Saturday night. Vanderbilt hasn’t had tremendous success recently, but they have developed a reputation under head coach Jerry Stackhouse as a well-prepared squad who will make it a difficult outing for undisciplined teams. This proved to be true again as the Aggies struggled to put away the hot shooting Commodores, grinding their way to a 72-66 victory. The win moves A&M to 15-6 on the season and 7-1 in SEC play with ten regular season games to go.
A&M jumped out to an early 11-4 lead, and it looked like the Ags were in complete control against a flustered Vandy squad. But the Commodores righted the ship (obviously) and got hot from behind the arc. Junior forward Myles Stute went off, hitting 4-of-5 from deep and propelling his team into a 6-point lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half. During this stretch, the Aggies seemed to become enamored with the three pointer themselves and stopped attacking the rim. The problem is that the Ags are at their best when they work inside out. Vanderbilt seized the opportunity and extended their lead to as many as 9, but Henry Coleman asserted himself both on the glass and in the paint, pulling the Aggies back within striking distance. Boots Radford drilled his second three ball of the half with two seconds remaining, and the Commodores took a 4-point advantage into the break.
After a lackluster two minute stretch to open the second half, the Aggies came roaring to life with a 10-2 run that tied the game at 41. A&M then went on a 12-0 run just five minutes later to open up a 13-point lead a 64-51. Once again the Ags appeared to be in complete control, all they had to do was close out the final 8:30 of the game. A&M kept looking for the three point dagger to seal the game and break the Commodores’ spirit, but the shot just wouldn’t fall. And Vandy wasn’t content to go quietly, catching fire from deep again and battling all the way back to take a 1-point lead with just under three minutes remaining.
I’ve been asked many times over the past three weeks whether this A&M team is actually good. People want to know if they should buy in and believe. If their dismantling of Auburn on Wednesday night left any doubt, the way the Aggies closed out this game against Vanderbilt was more proof that this group is on the right track. Buzz Williams’ squad rose to the challenge over the final three minutes, making all of the necessary hustle plays on defense and making the effort to crash the glass to impose their will and assure their victory. Andersson Garcia was a menace on defense and a monster on the glass. Dexter Dennis committed himself to locking up Stute down the stretch, while Wade Taylor harassed the Vandy guards. Despite their uncharacteristic struggles from the free thrown line, the Ags made the ones they needed most in the final minute to seal the victory.
It may seem odd to say that a home win in which the Aggies scored 72 points wasn’t pretty, but this game was very much a grind. A&M shot 44.9% from the floor, but they were 5-for-19 from beyond the arc and were an uncharacteristically poor 63.9% from the free throw line. Henry Coleman was great on the offensive end, leading the Ags in scoring with 18 points and pulling down 6 boards. Radford and Taylor each scored 14 despite relatively tough shooting performances. Taylor was 3-of-13 from the floor, but countered that with 7 rebounds and 7 assists while making all 7 of his free throw attempts. Radford was 4-of-11 from the field and an uncharacterstic 4-of-8 from the free throw line. Andersson Garcia played a tremendous game, pulling down 8 boards to go with 5 points and a steal. Three of those points came in the final 1:10 to secure the victory. including the go-ahead basket on an offensive rebound of a blocked Wade Taylor floater attempt.
Vanderbilt made this a tough contest. After the first 5 minutes, the Commodores settled down and were largely unbothered by A&M’s defensive pressure. Stute finished the game with 22 points after hitting 7 of his 14 attempts from beyond the arc. The Ags only collected four steals and forced 11 turnovers against the ‘Dores. The Aggies are going to have to keep their intensity up against middle and lower tier conference teams if they want to take care of business and avoid an embarrassing loss that could hurt their tournament resume. While I’m certain that A&M wouldn’t shy away from the challenge, I’m glad that the Aggies don’t have to make the return trip to Nashville this season.
Next up for the Aggies is a Tuesday night showdown against the resurgent Arkansas Razorbacks from Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Hogs are coming off of a 67-64 loss against Baylor in Waco as part of Saturday’s Big XII-SEC Challenge. Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks are currently 14-7 with a deceptive 3-5 mark in conference play. Arkansas is rated as the #21 team nationally in adjusted efficiency margin, and they are always a tough out at Bud Walton. It will be imperative for the Ags to take care of the basketball against a tall Arkansas team that creates a lot of defensive pressure with their length. A win over the Hogs at home would provide A&M with another crucial Quad 1 victory to bolster their NCAA tournament resume.