Coming off an emotional overtime win and playing a third game in less than 48 hours, Vanderbilt ran out of gas in Saturday, falling to Arkansas 76-62 in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
The Commodores struggled to their second-lowest shooting performance of the season, managing to connect on just 30 percent of their shots from the floor. And they ran into a buzzsaw on the other end of the court as the Razorbacks shot 48 percent and put four guys in double figures, led by Jaylen Barford's 18 points.
"Give credit to Arkansas," Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said following just his team's second loss in the last nine games. "I thought they played the best I've seen them play all year. They were just another level faster in everything tonight."
It was evident Arkansas had a little extra juice right from the opening tip, when a quick outlet pass led to a Barford lay in just four seconds into the game. And it only got worse, as the Razorbacks raced to a 9-nothing lead while the Commodores missed their first nine shots from the field.
Vandy responded with a 12-2 run to take the lead briefly, and hung within 35-31 at the break despite shooting just 25 percent in the first half. But Arkansas put the game out of reach with a 29-6 run over the first 11:00 of the second half.
"It was terrible," Vanderbilt guard Riley LaChance said. "We couldn't hit shots and we couldn't get any stops."
Besides the extra exertion a Vandy team with a short bench had to put for the last three days, playing a game Thursday against Texas A&M and then going to overtime to beat Florida Friday, the team's late season surge may have also taken an emotional toll.
The Commodores have played for the last six weeks with their backs against the wall, needing to win nearly every game to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. They won seven of eight games down the stretch, and a third win over the 17th-ranked Gators Friday all but locked up a NCAA Tournament bid. It's possible what we saw Saturday was the emotional exhale from a team no longer with it's back against the wall.
"It's been an emotional couple weeks," Drew said. "The Florida home game last week, then the A&M game Thursday because we knew what was at stake, and then the overtime game against Florida."
Saturday's loss was a disappointment for a Vanderbilt team that hoped to cap it's improbable turnaround with a SEC championship. But one loss in no way diminishes what they were able to do down the stretch of the season, beating Florida three times, toppling South Carolina, blowing out this same Arkansas team in Fayetteville, and beating an Iowa State team that won the Big 12 Tournament Saturday night.
"It's disappointing because we want to win every game that we play," senior guard Nolan Cressler said. "But I couldn't be prouder of this team and the way we fought back to put ourselves in the position we're in."
That position is a near-lock to be the first 15-loss team ever taken as an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament. A remarkable accomplishment for a team that fell to 12-13 after a 20-point loss at lowly Missouri one month ago Saturday.
"If we think back to where we were a month ago, with no prospects of getting into the tournament, (we were) just hoping to get into the NIT, maybe," senior forward Luke Kornet said in a still upbeat Vandy locker room. "The way we've been able to turn it around is a great thing."
And the run isn't over yet. Vanderbilt now has the chance, for the first time in weeks, to regroup and get ready for more basketball.
The NCAA Tournament starts this week, and the Commodores are a tourney team.