A team without many expectations externally, Vanderbilt appeared to be immune to the pressures many more talented and highly touted teams face each season.
Not the case, according to Kyle Fuller.
Though the Commodores lost their top six scorers and were expected to finish in the lower half of the Southeastern Conference, the junior guard said he could start to feel the walls caving in after three straight defeats at the start of conference play.
With the first SEC victory now on the books — Saturday’s 58-51 win at South Carolina — Fuller and the Commodores hope to breathe easier and play like a team under the radar.
“I just feel like now we can stop worrying about trying to get a win. We can relax and play our game,” Fuller said. “[Against South Carolina] it was just about this [letting a win slip away] has happened to us too many times right now. This needs to be stopped. We need to play. Like stop worrying about, ‘Oh my god, what happens if he hits this shot?’ Let’s just go out there and win this game.”
Vanderbilt (7-9, 1-3) will try to build momentum and start a winning streak as it hosts Auburn (8-9, 2-2), 7 p.m. Wednesday at Memorial Gymnasium.
The Commodores made strides against the Gamecocks. Despite 18 turnovers, 20-for-33 shooting on free throws and just three points from their leading scorer Kedren Johnson, Vanderbilt never trailed over the final 31 minutes and hit enough foul shots down the stretch to hold on.
It was a welcome change. Earlier in the week, the Commodores blew a 13-point lead to Ole Miss and allowed a game-tying, 35-foot 3-pointer at the end of regulation before losing in overtime. A week prior, the Commodores rallied from 16 down against Kentucky and grabbed the lead only to lose in the final minutes.
“It probably should have happened a long time ago,” coach Kevin Stallings said of the first win. “We were certainly happy to finish the game off and win. … Any time you have a young team your battle is going to be for consistency. This team has been consistent. We just haven’t finished consistently.”
Against Ole Miss, failure to finish at the free-throw line cost the Commodores. They were 10 of 23 and missed their last five in regulation. At South Carolina, they were far from perfect but made seven of 12 in the last 1:16.
Stallings said last week his team was fragile and that mindset was evident at the foul line, where they lacked confidence. Vanderbilt ranks 344th out of 345 Division I teams with a 57.2 free-throw shooting percentage. Fuller said making clutch free throws against South Carolina can boost other areas.
“The confidence comes from the free-throw shooting a little bit more,” said Fuller, who scored a game-high 12 points but was four of eight from the line. “[Stallings] had us in here after the Ole Miss game at like 7 o’clock in the morning — no, about 6 o’clock in the morning — shooting free throws for about an hour. Now that is hell. Oh my god. First of all, we get yelled at. On top of that, we’re shooting free throws in the morning when we’re tired. I feel like that really helped a lot.”
In a league obviously suffering a down year, Vanderbilt’s next three games are against teams with .500 records or lower in league play — Auburn (2-2), at Missouri (2-2) and at Tennessee (1-3).
If the Commodores want to salvage a poor start and finish above their predicted 10th-place finish by the media, closing out games — along with staying in them — will be a necessary first step.
“We’ve knocked on the door obviously and been in position to win games,” Stallings said. “We could very well be 3-1 right now instead of 1-3 but we’re not. It is what is and we have to continue to try to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve created. I continue to like our guys’ fight and their passion for trying to do what we ask them to do. If they continue to do that then we’ll continue to get better.”