Vanderbilt had about as much success playing the blame game Saturday as it did playing a basketball game.
Rather than point fingers — as is the custom — players and coaches each set out to accept blame beginning with coach Kevin Stallings, who said he “screwed up” in the final minutes of a 62-52 loss to Mississippi State in a Southeastern Conference tournament semifinal at Bridgestone Arena.
“None of what happened is on Coach,” sophomore forward Jeffery Taylor countered. “He can talk to us all he wants, the coaches can coach us as good as they want or as bad as they want but they’re not the ones who play the games. It’s the players who are out on the floor and we didn’t do the things we were supposed to do to win this game.”
The 20th-ranked Commodores (24-8) cut a 14-point halftime deficit to three but then were outscored 11-3 over the final 5:30. During that closing stretch they missed two free throws and two layups and went scoreless for a 3:59 stretch.
That was completely out of character for a team that during the regular season rallied for a one-point victory at Alabama, came back from 11 down at halftime to defeat Auburn and erased a six-point deficit in the final minute of regulation before it defeated Georgia in overtime.
Not only that, but Vanderbilt was the top free throw shooting team in the conference in terms of both attempts made (576) and percentage (72.7).
“It was a bit of an uncharacteristic Vanderbilt basketball game,” center A.J. Ogilvy said. “We’re normally a good free throw shooting team and a team that can score a lot of points. That didn’t happen (Saturday).”
Then again, the Commodores did not simply stumble at the finish.
They shot 35.7 percent from the field in the first half, and 11 of their first 16 points came from Andre Walker (six) and Festus Ezeli (five) — two players who averaged a combined 9.8 per game for the season.
None of their top four scorers — Ogilvy, Taylor, Jermaine Beal or John Jenkins — reached their per game average. Beal, who finished with a team-high 11 points, was the only one of that group to hit double figures.
Not coincidentally, their final point total was the lowest of the season and they played from behind for the final 33 minutes.
Mississippi State (23-10), who will now face Kentucky — a big winner over the UT Vols — in Sunday's final, had four players in double figures, led by former Shelbyville standout Barry Stewart with 14.
“I thought our team, defensively, did some things about as well as you could do it,” MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. “When you look at the stat sheet and you see only one guy in double figures, and you look at their center (Ogilvy) and he has two points.
“I felt like they never got in their comfort zone offensively.”
Despite all of that, Vanderbilt still had a chance. It used a 15-4 run, which included two 3-pointers by Brad Tinsley, to close to within three, 51-48, with 5:38 to play but failed to maintain that momentum to the finish.
“I made some mistakes and it cost our team,” Stallings said. “… We had the wrong guys doing the wrong things. Guys weren’t really playing to their strengths and that’s my fault.
“… We made some turnovers. We took some bad shots. We got some balls blocked. I take responsibility for that because that could have been avoided if I had done a better job.”
That’s one way to look at it, but clearly not the only way.