An ugly night of basketball turned out to be a thing of beauty for Vanderbilt on Thursday.
The 15th-ranked Commodores, struggling to find their shooting rhythm most of the game, used suffocating defense to roll past outmanned Rice, 76-58, before a crowd of 11,966 at Memorial Gym.
The Owls shot only 37.9 percent from the field, coughed up 24 turnovers and made only one three-pointer.
That permitted Vanderbilt to blow the game open in the second half and improve to 14-0.
“It was nice to have an ugly game,” VU coach Kevin Stallings said. “That means we got down in the trenches and guarded, which was really good. I really liked how we played defensively. We were aggressive and aware.”
Injury-depleted Rice played with only seven scholarship players. Things are so dire that Owls football player Pierre Beasley flew to Nashville on Wednesday night to join the team and provide much-needed depth.
Rice made a game of it in the first half and trailed 31-26 at halftime. In the second half, Vanderbilt’s depth and defense blew the game open. VU led by as much as 23 points.
“From our perspective, physically and emotionally we were worn down a little bit,” Rice coach Willis Wilson said. “Our effort was pretty good, but there were times when we were just overwhelmed. We don’t have enough gas to take advantage of opportunities when they’re there.”
An 11-0 Vanderbilt run to open the second half buried the Owls.
A.J. Ogilvy started the flurry with a dunk, Ross Neltner scored inside, Jermaine Beal made a layup, Alex Gordon canned a three-pointer and Shan Foster stroked a jumper.
Just like that, it was 42-26. Vanderbilt led by no less than 12 points the rest of the way.
“That was really our undoing right there,” Wilson said. “Their performance combined with our performance at the start of the second half really just took a lot of wind out of our sails.”
Defense, an ongoing area of concern for the Commodores, provided an early spark.
In the first half, Vanderbilt got two five-second calls defensively, and Rice made only three of its first 15 shots.
The Owls then shot only 35.7 percent in the second half, allowing the Commodores to score on several easy baskets.
“Coach talks to us all the time about the nights when those shots aren’t falling, defense needs to carry us,” Foster said. “This was definitely one of those nights. It was one of those grind-out games, and feels great to win one of those games.”
Foster led Vanderbilt with 24 points, the ninth time this season he’s scored 20 or more. Ogilvy scored 17 and Gordon added 11.
Paulius Packevicius led Rice (3-9) with 17 points and seven rebounds. Lawrence Ghoram added 15 points.
“It’s a beginning and an improvement over what we’ve had in some other games,” Stallings said. “You’re going to have to win some games like this. We’ve probably got a long way to go in a lot of areas, but tonight was a step in the right direction for us.”