DENVER — If it is possible, this loss stings even more.
In a somber, silent locker room, Vanderbilt players hung their heads and wiped away tears as they came to grips with the fact that their season was over — again too early for their liking.
With a 69-66 loss to No. 12 seed Richmond in the Southwest Regional on Thursday, the Commodores, seeded fifth, left the Pepsi Center in disbelief. For the third straight time — and second consecutive year — they left the NCAA Tournament without a win.
“It is extremely painful, second year in a row,” forward Jeffery Taylor said. “We feel like we had a great opportunity to do something big and we let it slip out of our hands again. It is one of the most painful things I think you can experience as an athlete.”
Last year, as a No. 13 seed, Murray State knocked off fourth-seeded Vanderbilt in the first round on a shot at the buzzer. That left a feeling with the Commodores, one they felt they would shake this time around. That wasn’t the case, as their 11-point first half lead evaporated behind 25 points by Richmond's Kevin Anderson.
The Spiders advanced to play No. 13 seed Morehead State, another upset winner (over Louisville), on Saturday.
“It is a different, worse feeling for me [than last year] because we worked so hard and we made so many sacrifices,” Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins said. “To lose this way again, it definitely hurts.”
Anderson, a 6-foot guard, drained his fourth and final 3-pointer with 12:05 left and gave Richmond its first lead of the game, 51-48. The Spiders (28-7), the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament champions, never trailed from there.
Vanderbilt (23-11) pulled within one a couple times late. The last time came when Lance Goulbourne made one free throw but missed his second with 50.1 seconds remaining. Richmond killed some clock before Anderson got free again and made a falling jumper over 6-11 Festus Ezeli for a 68-65 lead with 18.9 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, Jenkins drove in from the left side and kicked a pass out to Brad Tinsley on the right wing. Guarded behind the 3-point line, Tinsley decided to pass it to Goulbourne, who drove inside. He tried to pass to Ezeli, but Francis Martel tipped the ball and it was intercepted by Darrius Garrett, who was immediately fouled with 5.5 seconds to go.
“He kicked it out to me and I should have popped the shot or drove it, made a dumb play ... just not being aggressive in that opportunity,” Tinsley said.
Garrett made one free throw, then Ezeli made one and missed the second on purpose. Anderson grabbed the rebound, was fouled but made just one free throw, keeping it a three-point game. The Commodores moved the ball up to halfcourt and took a timeout with 2.5 seconds left.
Andre Walker came into the game for the first time to inbound the ball. The play was designed to get the ball to freshman Rod Odom and use sharp-shooter Jenkins as a diversion. Jenkins set a screen for Odom, who got open enough to catch the ball and dribble once but his 3-pointer was partially blocked by Justin Harper and fell well short of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
“A late game situation like that they are not going to call a foul. He got me a little bit but not enough to call it,” Odom said.
Added Ezeli: “I thought he got fouled. It doesn’t matter now. We should have played better leading up to that situation.”
Ezeli and Jenkins carried Vanderbilt in the first half, combining for 24 first-half points. They finished with 21 points each.
A 3-pointer from Jenkins gave the Commodores a 29-18 lead with 5:51 before halftime. But the Spiders used 3-pointers from Anderson and Cedrick Lindsay and a jumper by Justin Harper to trail by just three at halftime.
Vanderbilt pushed the lead back to nine in the second half before Richmond went on a 12-0 run for its first lead. Harper, who had 13 points, started it with a 3 and then Anderson made three more in a row from long range.
“Those two kids for Richmond, they’re as good of players as anybody has almost,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
Still, even with Richmond’s 12 3-pointers — the most an opponent has made against Vanderbilt this season — the Commodores had chances to win. They failed to do the “small things,” as Taylor put it, such as keeping Richmond from extending possessions.
The Spiders grabbed rebounds at opportune times. Despite being outrebounded 36-27, Richmond had seven big offensive boards. On one possession midway through the second half, they grabbed three offensive boards, to have the ball fore more than a minute, ending with a jumper by Lindsay.
“They had a couple of flurries on the boards that were momentum-shifting,” Stallings said.
The Commodores were woeful at the free-throw line (14-of-23). Ezeli was 5-of-10 and Goulbourne was 2-of-6.
In the end, those little mistakes kept Vanderbilt from getting past the first round for the first time in four years.
“It is very, very disappointing,” Taylor said. “I feel like we left so much out there.”