NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Vanderbilt forward Alan Metcalfe rotated over to stop Rice’s Lawrence Ghoram from penetrating, ripping the ball loose and passing it ahead to an open Shan Foster.
Foster took two dribbles and cocked back his right arm for an emphatic windmill dunk, sending the 11,996 fans in Memorial Gym into a frenzy and energizing the Commodores.
It was a small moment in No. 15 Vanderbilt’s 76-58 victory Thursday night, but for a team that has been criticized by coach Kevin Stallings for poor defensive showings, small hustle plays like that can mean a lot.
Foster had 24 points and Vanderbilt (14-0) swarmed Rice (3-9) defensively to remain undefeated, forcing a season-high 24 turnovers and showing they can win with more than a high-scoring offense.
“How did I like that dunk?” Foster asked. “How did you guys like it? We definitely need more of those. And it comes from us pressuring the ball, trusting that your teammates will be in gaps and things of that sort.”
Led by their defense, the Commodores extended the best start in the program’s 108-year history. The 2003-04 Vanderbilt team won its first 12 games en route to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
A.J. Ogilvy added 14 points and nine rebounds, and Alex Gordon scored 11 points for the energized Commodores, who forced 21 turnovers against Tennessee-Martin earlier this season.
The win kept the Commodores in the depleting group of unbeaten Division I teams. North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas, Washington State and Mississippi are the only other schools without a loss.
“It was nice to have an ugly game,” Stallings said. “That means we got in the trenches and guarded.”
Paulius Packevicius led Rice with 17 points, and Ghoram added 15 points and six rebounds.
The loss was the second straight against a ranked opponent for the Owls, who lost 68-41 to No. 12 Texas A&M on Monday. The Owls fell to 3-15 against Vanderbilt, and have never defeated the Commodores in Nashville.
Playing with just seven scholarship players and two football players, Rice coach Willis Wilson said his team didn’t have the stamina to compete against Vanderbilt’s suffocating pressure.
“From our perspective, we were just physically and emotionally worn down,” Wilson said. “We had a hard time, especially on the offensive side, doing what we do. There were times where we were just overwhelmed.”
Vanderbilt finally showed the kind of defense Stallings has wanted.
Everything that had been missing for the Commodores—hustle plays, forced turnovers, contested shots—was there against Rice. Besides the 24 forced turnovers, Vanderbilt caused two 5-second violations, had seven steals and five blocked shots.
“That’s been our main focus,” Gordon said. “Coach has been telling us we have to come out and execute defensively. Tonight we did, and it made all the difference.”
The only problem?
The Commodores struggled to score at times, a rarity this season.
With Southeastern Conference play beginning next week, Vanderbilt knows such droughts may occur more often, which is why Stallings has preached his Commodores must improve defensively.
They did—albeit against a team with three wins.
“Sometimes when our shots aren’t falling, our defense will have to carry us,” Foster said. “There were times when our energy was high, but there were times when our energy was low (on offense). We’re going to have to win these grind out games.”
The Commodores held the Owls to just one field goal over the first 6:11 of the second half to build a 44-28 lead. Stallings used a 10-man rotation to keep his players fresh, allowing Vanderbilt to swarm Rice constantly without tiring.
The game began in similar fashion.
Vanderbilt allowed only two field goals in the first 7:45, going ahead 13-4. With the Commodores enduring early dry spells, Rice was able to get within 31-26 at halftime.
“That was our undoing,” Wilson said. “Those runs took the wind out of our sails.”