Vanderbilt basketball drops third straight SEC matchup, falls to Mississippi State
Vanderbilt basketball was initially successful in its game plan against Mississippi State: eliminate forward Tolu Smith and force the ball out of the hands of guards Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart Jr.
Smith was shut down in the first half at Memorial Gym, but Molinar and Stewart Jr. were too much for Vanderbilt, which lost 84-81 to the Bulldogs on Saturday. The loss gave Vanderbilt (4-5) its third straight 0-3 start in SEC play and its first 0-3 stint against the Bulldogs since 2004.
Commodores coach Jerry Stackhouse knew standout performances from Mississippi State’s top two guards would be trouble despite the Commodores’ well-rounded offensive performance.
“We can't allow those two guys to come in and have 18 points apiece, the way they’ve averaged this year,” Stackhouse said Friday. “(If) they do that, I don't think that bodes well for us.”
Smith ended with 18 points, including 13 in the second half.
The Bulldogs keyed in on Scotty Pippen Jr., who finished with 18 points on 4-for-11 shooting but had a career-high 12 assists. Pippen Jr., forward Dylan Disu (16 points) and guards DJ Harvey (13) and Trey Thomas (17) finished in double figures.
It was Vanderbilt's second consecutive three-point loss, including Tuesday's game against Kentucky.
Here are three observations from Saturday’s game:
Vanderbilt fails to protect the paint
The Bulldogs (8-4) only took four shots from 3-point range in the first half. Instead, Mississippi State’s damage was done in the paint, getting to the basket at will. It scored 20 of its 36 first-half points in the paint and shot 63% from the field. Molinar’s 10 points in the first half came from inside the arc.
"The team that we played made everything they threw up," Stackhouse said. "Give them credit for making plays, but I don't think it's as bad as the field goal percentage. If the team shoots 60.8%, and you still have a chance to win the game, that's not going to happen too often."
The interior attack was the same for the Bulldogs in the second half. Molinar finished with 24 points, leading all players. Stewart Jr. had 16 points.
An off day from deep
Vanderbilt made six of its first eight 3-pointers. It ended the half shooting 7-for-18. It improved after intermission, however, cutting a lead that was as large as 11 with seven minutes left to 71-67 with 3:58 to play. The Commodores finished 15-for-33 from deep.
Thomas led Vanderbilt by knocking down a career-best 5-of-9 3-pointers. The 5-foot-11 freshman from Ontario, Canada, scored 17 points, his most since scoring 15 against Richmond on Dec. 16.
Vandy-Volscould play twice this week
Tuesday's game against No. 13 Missouri could be in doubt after the Tigers were forced to pause activities Friday because of a positive COVID-19 test in the program.
Stackhouse said he doubts the two will play and it's possible the Commodores will instead play a back-to-back with Tennessee next week.
"There may not even be (a game) with some of the things I'm hearing, and there's a possibility of playing Tennessee on Tuesday and back again on Saturday," he said. "In this (COVID-19) world right now, man, it's day-to-day. Hopefully we play somebody on Tuesday and then somebody on Saturday."
Like Vanderbilt, the Vols have a Tuesday game scheduled against South Carolina, which also is dealing with COVID-19 issues. Vanderbilt and Tennessee already are scheduled to play Jan. 16 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We have heard it (could happen), but we don’t know," Vols coach Rick Barnes said Saturday after Tennessee beat Texas A&M 68-54. "(Deputy athletic director) Reid Sigmon told me that he thought we would know something definitely by tomorrow but we might know something by the time we get back to Knoxville."
For Vanderbilt story ideas, contact Drake Hills at DHills@gannett.com. Follow Drake on Twitter at @LiveLifeDrake.