Kevin Stallings earned his 400th career victory, and it was perhaps his most satisfying.
The second-longest-tenured coach in the SEC guaranteed himself an even longer stay as head coach of the Commodores with a dominating 64-48 victory over defending national champions Kentucky on Friday.
In the hot seat for much of the season, Stallings stayed patient with the young team, ignoring the critics calling for his head. Stallings remained a source of solidarity throughout a very up and down season.
“There was a point this season where we really weren't very good, and now to watch that tonight, to watch us on the defensive end, and then to watch the execution offensively and the confidence the guys have to jump up and make shots and to make plays for each other, it's very gratifying,” Stallings explained.
While much can be said about the opportunities that were missed the NBA-laden team of years past, no one can argue that Stallings has gotten the most out of this bunch. Working with a team that had a combined 11 starts (all by Odom and Fuller) before this season, Stallings had to start from the ground up to build the potential he saw in his young group.
“I think the most satisfying thing you can have as a coach is to get your team to play as close to their potential as they possibly possess, and I felt like tonight we came very close to playing to our very fullest potential, and that is -- I don't care if it's a veteran team, an experienced team, an extremely talented team or a young team or what, your job as the coach is to try to make them as good as they can be and help them become as good as they can be, “ Stallings said.
His young team shot a season-high 91 percent from the line and a season high 50 percent from the field, while knocking down 8 of 17 three-pointers.
Vanderbilt, entering the tournament with only two players (Kedren Johnson and Rod Odom) that had ever stepped onto the court in SEC tournament play, have matured into a confident bunch. In fact, the Commodores have won eight of their last nine games.
“In the first couple of games with them, I think they came out, hit us in the mouth pretty good and we tried to make a point of going out there and competing from the beginning of the game, and I think that did a lot for us today,” said Odom in explaining the team’s new mentality against Kentucky.
Facing a raucous crowd that had a Rupp-like feel and a team playing for an NCAA tournament bid, the Commodores remained in control from the tip, allowing Kentucky only one lead (the 14:36 mark of the first half) and ending the Big Blue Invasion of Nashville a few days early.
While Nashville’s economy will suffer, the fortunes of the Vanderbilt basketball have seen a seismic shift.
And it’s thanks to an excellent coach and a group of players instilled with a fighting attitude, developed throughout a rollercoaster season.