Confidence game

Associated Press photo by L.G. PATTERSONVanderbilt's Sheldon Jeter walks off the court as the Missouri team celebrates an 81-59 Southeastern Conference win Jan. 26 in Columbia, Mo. Show caption
Associated Press photo by L.G. PATTERSONVanderbilt's Sheldon Jeter walks off the court as the Missouri team celebrates an 81-59 Southeastern Conference win Jan. 26 in Columbia, Mo.

LSU on the rise; Vanderbilt grappling to finish games

Reeling in the wake of squandering an 11-point lead against Alabama, Kevin Stallings’ voice never raised the decimal meter or deviated from a steady inflection during an 80-second critique of the Commodores mettle Saturday.

With a minute left, Crimson Tide guard Trevor Lacey curled off a screen set at the free-throw line and buried a go-ahead 3-pointer from the top of the arc, capping an 18-3 closing run over the final seven minutes in a 58-54 victory.

Yet Stallings wasn’t incensed with the Commodores (8-12, 2-6 Southeastern Conference), who face LSU (12-7, 3-5) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Instead, the Commodores coach glumly fidgeted with his thumbs while painstakingly ticking off a litany of missed chances to subdue Alabama in the final minute — uncomfortably similar to January losses against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee.

“You’ve got to make winning plays at the end of games,” Stallings said. “We continue to make losing plays.”

The ineffable quality of confidence, sought by all but hard to qualify or quantify. The intrinsic value grows more valuable in a season where youth reigns supreme across SEC rosters.

Few places feel that more acutely than Vanderbilt, which ranks No. 322 nationally in experience with an average of 1.07 years, according to KenPom.com.

For example, sophomore guard Kedren Johnson, who leads Vandy with 14.9 points per game 3.2 assists, was seventh in minutes and scoring for Stallings last season. Three core members of the starting rotation averaged only a combined 6.2 points last season, or 8.5 percent of total production.

“This is the least-experienced group we’ve ever had returning anything,” Stallings said. “We had nobody a year ago in a role similar to the one they’re in now. So the encouraging thing is we keep putting ourselves in a position to win games.”

The Commodores mirror LSU in the sense both have grappled with closing out hard-fought games. But after fending off a rally from then-ranked No. 17 Missouri and clawing back on the road at State, it seems LSU attained a degree of competency.

“Obviously, these past two wins have been great,” Johnny O’Bryant said. “They’re great for confidence, but we always realize it’s a long season. Vanderbilt is going to come here a hungry team, so you just keep getting ready. You can’t be too confident.”

Yet the Tigers temper those wins against a four-point loss at Marquette, a loss at Auburn where they led by six points early in the second half, another road setback against Georgia with the game tied and four minutes to go, and a five-point loss to Kentucky when Shavon Coleman missed a game-tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

“It was important,” Hickey said. “We needed to know what that other side felt like. Now that we’re on this streak, we’ve got to stay on the right side. When our back was against the ropes, we have to come out swinging.”

And Jones never sensed on-set of despair or frustration, despite an 0-4 SEC start with an early schedule that — on flimsy paper — presented LSU a chance for early momentum.

“When we’ve had setbacks, I looked at the attitude of our guys,” Jones said. “They couldn’t wait until the next opportunity to be back out there on the floor to have a chance to play again. I think that’s a sign of confidence, not being too down.”

Unfortunately, Stallings roster lacks a player with comparable mental makeup.

“We have too many guys that don’t want what goes on at the end of a game,” he said. “They’re not ready for it yet, apparently.”

Against Kentucky, Vanderbilt used an 18-0 run over seven minutes to take 49-47 lead with 6:11 left to play, but watched Wildcats point guard Ryan Harrow bury a 3-pointer to stem the tide.

Knotted at 54-54, UK swingman Kyle Witljer hit a jumper and Vandy went cold for the final three minutes.

Five days later, guard Kevin Bright knocked down a 3-pointer in the right corner with 3.7 seconds left to put Vandy in front of Ole Miss 78-75. Yet Rebels guard Marshall Henderson nailed a 35-footer to force overtime, a period where the Commodores were outscored 11-1 in an 89-79 loss.

And a week ago, Johnson and Bright had close-range shots bounce off the iron in the final two seconds, and Tennessee pulled out a 58-57 victory after building an early 12-point lead.

“They do a great job playing together, and they continue to get better and better,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. “In late game situations, if they come up short, it’s a matter of being together, being on the same page. They have the pieces.”

The problem is Stallings sounds less confident about his team’s fortitude with games in the balance.

“The thing I’ve got to try to convince my team of is I’m going to coach them the same way at the end of the game as I coached them the first 35 minutes of the game,” Stallings said. “They’re expecting me to coach them differently or do things differently.”

Kenney ‘day-to-day’

LSU women’s point guard Jeanne Kenney is “day-to-day” after suffering a knee injury Monday night against Texas A&M, coach Nikki Caldwell said.

Kenney was hurt when an Aggies player fell backward against her leg, hyperextending the knee.

Caldwell said it doesn’t appear Kenney suffered a ligament tear. However, she may require an MRI to determine what damage if any there is to her knee.

Kenney missed practice Tuesday and is questionable for LSU’s 8 p.m. game Thursday against Tennessee at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

If the junior can’t play, senior Bianca Lutley would likely run more of the point for LSU, Caldwell said. Freshman guard Coco Baker would also likely see more playing time.

Advocate sportswriter
Scott Rabalais
contributed to this report