SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Vanderbilt arrived in Puerto Rico last week with the confidence that it was an SEC East contender. But the team wasn’t completely sure it had a true identity.
It is now.
Quite simply, the Commodores are a tougher, more aggressive and more balanced team than they were a season ago, when A.J. Ogilvy was in the middle and Jermaine Beal held down the perimeter.
All you needed for proof was to watch the Dores suffer a rugged, three-point semifinal loss to West Virginia on Friday and then bounce back Sunday to finish out No. 8 North Carolina 72-65 for third place at the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
“We’ve learned that hard work pays off,’’ said Vanderbilt forward Festus Ezeli. “We’ve learned that we’re a very tough team. The thing [in the past] was that we were soft. We’re done with that. It’s time to play.’’
The UNC frontcourt of John Henson, Tyler Zeller, Justin Knox and to some extent Harrison Barnes, who was forced to play more power forward Sunday, had the headlines and the hype. But the force of Ezeli and the complimentary play of Lance Goulbourne, as well as the rebounding and defense of wing Jeffery Taylor, were the difference against the Tar Heels. Goulbourne at one point sailed through the taller Heels and flushed down a dunk that sent a strong message to Carolina.
“We knew we had a tough group of guys that didn’t back down,’’ Goulbourne said. “We were down 11 at halftime to West Virginia and came back. We got down nine and tied the game twice. We had a 10-point lead against North Carolina, blew that, tied it and kept going. We’re fighting for each other. In the past, we didn’t have that same intensity. But we’ve got a tough group of kids and it showed.’’
Goulbourne said Vandy’s ability to come off the weak side and attack was a difference on Sunday.
The Commodores were supposed to be known for their perimeter of Taylor, John Jenkins and the combo point of Brad Tinsley and Kyle Fuller. And they will be at times. But there was so much more to this team with the way Andre Walker, Rod Odom and Steve Tchiengang also contributed. Taylor outplayed the heralded freshman Barnes, finishing with a solid 15 points and seven boards. He also played solid defense when he had the chance to guard Barnes. As for Fuller, he gives the Commodores more speed at the point while Tinsley can be a steadying influence, although he didn’t shoot as well on this trip.
Bottom line: Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has a solid nine-player rotation with no scrubs.
"I’m happy for the poise and toughness they showed when Carolina came out and socked us straight in the mouth about the first 10 minutes of the second half,’’ Stallings said of UNC storming back to take the lead. “We were able to keep the game back in our control and do what we needed to do."
Vanderbilt leaves San Juan with two wins. And you can expect the Commodores to get plenty more. They should be taken very seriously as a contender in the SEC East. Stallings said this summer he thought his team would contend because it was more balanced and tougher. He was right.
“I thought we could win the tournament when we came down here,’’ Stallings said. “I told our team I thought we could win and we could’ve at least been playing for the championship. I tell you, Minnesota’s got a really good-looking team to me. I don’t know how we would have fared if we had gotten to play them, but we didn’t because West Virginia outplayed us two days ago. I’m not surprised with what we’ve done. I expected us to have a chance to be in the thick of this thing and I didn’t look at other teams and think that anybody was a lot better than us down here."