The Commodores showed poise that was missing a month ago.
Vanderbilt ended the regular season by staring down a late South Carolina charge and holding on for a 74-64 victory on Saturday. Rod Odom and Dai-Jon Parker each scored 18 points and the Commodores, who held on after their 12-point lead evaporated to two with less than four minutes remaining.
“I’m real proud of our team for hanging in there this regular season and fighting all the way to the end and never giving in through some of the disappointments we had,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of his team, which has won six of its last nine games.
The Commodores (14-16, 8-10 Southeastern Conference) charged to a 36-25 halftime lead behind 16 first-half points from Odom.
But South Carolina (14-17, 4-14) pulled within two, 56-54, on Lakeem Jackson’s layup with 3:45 left. But his unconventional one-handed free throw missed and failed to complete the 3-point play.
Vanderbilt center Josh Henderson answered with a layup off a pick and roll. Then, with the shot clock winding down, Parker made his third and final 3-pointer. The shot glanced off the backboard and through the net for a 61-54 lead with 2:23 to go.
“Never forget there is always a little luck involved in this game,” Stallings said. “I asked him after the game if he called bank and he said, ‘No, but they put the backboard up there for another reason.’”
“Everybody knows the bank is open on Saturdays,” Parker said with a grin.
Brenton Williams’ third 3-pointer off an offensive rebound chopped the deficit to 66-62 with 35 seconds remaining. Vanderbilt silenced the comeback by making eight of 10 free throws in the last 51 seconds.
“We watched the tape (from past games) and our body language is really bad, everybody would drop their shoulders and be like, ‘Oh man, this is happening again,’” Odom said. “I think now when another team goes on a run, guys are just like, ‘OK, we’ve just got to stay composed, make shots and make free throws.’ I just think guys have a lot more confidence in themselves down the stretch.”
The Commodores made 23 of 28 free throws. Kedren Johnson scored 10 of his 12 points - all coming in the second half - from the foul line.
The performance once again contradicted the scouting report of South Carolina assistant coach Brad Underwood. Two months ago, Vanderbilt was the second worst free-throw shooting team in the country. The Commodores entered the game shooting a conference-worst 62.2 percent from the line. But in two games against the Gamecocks, they’ve made 43 of 61 (70.4 percent).
“They stepped up,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “All those guys are freshmen and sophomores back in November and everyone said, ‘Oh, they’re not very good.’ Well, good luck to those people who are so ignorant they are willing to judge people in the first week of the season. A lot of credit to coach Stallings and those kids. I enjoy watching their team because they play it the right way.”
Despite shooting 26.7 percent (8-of-30) in the first half, the Gamecocks had trimmed the lead to four, 22-18, with 4:32 left in the half.
Then Odom ripped off a 12-0 run.
Parker drove the lane and kicked it out to Odom for an open 3. After a Shelby Moats steal, Parker again found Odom, this time in the opposite corner, for another 3-pointer. He stayed hot with a jumper and two free throws for a 32-20 lead. Cutting to the basket, he banked in a layup to end his scoring streak with 70 seconds before the halftime.
“Dai-Jon made a couple great passes to me, got me going and got my confidence up,” Odom said. “I got inside a couple times. I was getting a lot of good looks, set up by my teammates.”
An alley-oop slam by R.J. Slawson chopped the South Carolina deficit to single digits momentarily. But Kyle Fuller’s driving layup rolled in as time expired to give Vanderbilt an 11-point halftime lead.
The Commodores missed eight of their first nine shots after the break. Meanwhile, South Carolina heated up. Williams made consecutive 3-pointers and a step back jumper. Brian Steele curled around a screen and uncorked a 3-pointer to pull South Carolina within three, 43-40, with 12:28 left. Vanderbilt’s Sheldon Jeter answered with a 3 in the corner to spark a 7-2 run and stretch the lead to eight points.
South Carolina, which never led after making the first basket of the game, cut the deficit to four twice in the last four minutes. The Commodores responded each time to seal their fifth straight victory over the Gamecocks.
“Our kids battled. I’m not disappointed in our kids,” Martin said. “They put whatever the season has shown us aside and our kids came out here and tried. But give them credit. They closed out their last home game just like we closed ours the other night.”
Williams led South Carolina with 17 points, scoring 13 after halftime. Bruce Ellington added 10 and Michael Carerra grabbed 13 rebounds. The Gamecocks head into next week’s SEC tournament, which begins Wednesday in Nashville, losers of four of their last five.
The Commodores, on the other hand, ride momentum into the league tournament. They lost their first through league games and suffered a four-game losing streak in January and February. In the last four weeks, however, their only three losses have been to three of top six teams in the league - Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida.
The Commodores head into next week’s SEC tournament as the No. 10 seed and the defending tournament champ. Vanderbilt won the SEC Tournament crown last year for the first time since 1951. But all five starters and top six scorers from last year’s team are gone.
“I don’t think it is going to score any baskets for us on Thursday - I wish it would,” Stallings said. “We’re proud of that championship last year - very proud of it. We’re proud of that team and proud of that group coming together at that time and making something really special happen against a really great Kentucky team. That was a pretty neat moment in our program’s history.”