Vanderbilt fell short in its attempt to win its first SEC title since 1992-93, and a loss at unheralded Georgia played a part.
The 20th-ranked Commodores will face the Bulldogs in the friendlier confines of Nashville, Tenn., in Friday night’s quarterfinals as they begin their drive toward their first conference tournament title in 59 years.
Vanderbilt (23-7) finished two games behind Kentucky, and a pair of losses kept the Commodores from catching the second-ranked Wildcats.
They finished the season with a 77-73 home loss to South Carolina on Saturday but suffered their most lopsided defeat Feb. 6—72-58 at Georgia, where the Bulldogs made 14 of their final 21 shots and scored 49 second-half points.
Vanderbilt nearly lost again to Georgia in Nashville on Feb. 25 but erased a five-point deficit with 33 seconds left in regulation. Senior guard Jermaine Beal then tallied six of his career-high 28 points in overtime of a 96-94 victory.
“I was proud of our guys. They kept playing and kept battling,” coach Kevin Stallings said following the win. “We finally got it over the top and got it to overtime. … Georgia is a good team, and they’re a relatively difficult team for us for some reason.”
Beal, who leads the Commodores with 14.7 points per game, was also one of two players in double figures in the loss at Georgia with 21 points. Sophomore guard Brad Tinsley contributed 18, but five other players combined for 19 during a 32.8-percent shooting performance.
As they did much of this season for the Bulldogs, sophomore forward Trey Thompkins and sophomore guard Travis Leslie led the way against Vanderbilt.
Thompkins, who has a team-leading 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs, averaged 19.0 and 7.0, respectively, versus the Commodores. Leslie fared even better in averaging 19.5 points and 9.0 rebounds over the two matchups.
Georgia’s two top scorers were pivotal again in Thursday night’s opening-round win over Arkansas. Thompkins had 23 points and 14 rebounds, and Leslie added 21 points in the 77-64 victory.
Georgia limited Arkansas to 38.8 percent shooting and outrebounded the Razorbacks 45-28.
“We decided we were going to play defense as hard as we can, and it paid off for us,” Thompkins said.
Despite that strong effort in the opener, Thompkins knows the Bulldogs will have it tough again Friday night.
“Vanderbilt is a great team,” he said. “We understand we’re going to have to come with every punch we have because they’re going to play us hard.”
While the Commodores are all but assured of their third NCAA berth in four seasons, Georgia’s only hope is to win four tournament games for the second time in three years to claim the SEC’s automatic bid.
Vanderbilt leads the series 82-48 and is searching for its fifth straight win over the Bulldogs in Nashville.
The teams are playing in the SEC tournament for the first time since Georgia’s 80-72 win in 1991.
The Bulldogs, though, were one of the four teams the Commodores beat during their run to the 1951 SEC tournament title.