COLUMBIA — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings thinks his young team may be growing up.
The Commodores held on despite squandering nearly all of a 10-point lead in the second half to win their first Southeastern Conference game of the season, 58-51 over South Carolina on Saturday.
Kyle Fuller scored 12 points and Dai-Jon Parker 11 for Vanderbilt (7-9, 1-3 SEC), which has had its share of problems finishing games this season. Middle Tennessee used a 16-3 run at the end to pull out a 56-52 win over the Commodores on Dec. 21. They wiped out a 16-point lead against Kentucky on Jan. 10 before losing 60-58. And this past Tuesday, Mississippi got a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime before pulling away for an 89-79 victory.
Things were slipping away for Vanderbilt once again at the Colonial Life Arena. This time, though, the Commodores called on some tough defense and solid foul shooting to earn their fourth straight victory over South Carolina.
“We’ll see where it goes. I hope it’s a confidence booster,” Stallings said. “It rewards them, and they deserve to be rewarded because they’ve been very, very coachable and they’ve worked very hard.”
Especially at the end, with the Gamecocks charging hard.
The Commodores (7-9, 1-3) led 45-35 with 8:35 to go after a free throw by Shelby Moats. South Carolina (11-6, 1-3) used a 14-6 run over the next six minutes to get within a basket at 51-49, but the Gamecocks got no closer.
Vanderbilt went 0-for-6 from the field in the last 6:27 but made seven foul shots down the stretch to keep in front. The Commodores’ leading scorer coming in, Kedren Johnson, was held to three points, 12 fewer than his average, on 0-of-6 shooting.
“This is a shot in the arm for us,” Stallings said.
Brenton Williams had 16 points to lead South Carolina. Williams missed a 3-pointer with 1:41 left that would’ve given the Gamecocks a lead when they trailed 51-49.
Williams said teammate Bruce Ellington found him for an open 3 in the corner. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the shot,” Williams said.
Rod Odom extended the Commodores’ lead with a pair of foul shots moments later. Fuller made 1 of 2 from the line, as did Sheldon Jeter. Fuller added one more foul shot for a 56-49 lead with 36 seconds left.
After Brian Richardson scored the Gamecocks’ final points on breakaway dunk, Johnson and Fuller each made one more foul shot to put the game away. Vanderbilt avoided its first four-game SEC losing streak since the 2008-09 season.
Stallings said the team’s defense clicked in, holding the Gamecocks to 14 of 59 shooting (23.7 percent) for the game. “I don’t know if this is the best we’ve played,” he said. “But we certainly played well.”
South Carolina tried to pack the Colonial Life Arena as much for the football team as the basketball team. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier and his staff entertained several high school prospects the team hopes to sign next month.
Fans received posters commemorating what the school called the “Best Football Team in Gamecock History.” South Carolina went 11-2 this past season, wrapping things up with a 33-28 victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Spurrier wore a bright red jacket at halftime as the fans stood and cheered. The head ball coach was flanked by several players, including star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. “There are several future Gamecocks in the crowd tonight, and hopefully in the next few years we’re going to have an SEC championship down here,” he said.
Basketball coach Frank Martin did his part to fill the stands, inviting students to join the “Garnet Army” and promising food and T-shirts for those who came out. The student section was packed, filled with people in garnet-themed camo tees.
The Gamecocks could’ve used the football’s team offensive success early on against Vanderbilt. After Williams’ 3-pointer put them ahead 8-5 less than three minutes in, they went nearly 10 minutes without a basket.
South Carolina was 3 of 23 in the final 17 minutes of the half and ended it shooting 17.2 percent (5 of 29).
The Gamecocks’ performance made Vanderbilt, which has been held to 33 points twice this season, appear an offensive juggernaut at 9 of 19 shooting (47.4 percent).
Still, Vanderbilt couldn’t break away. The Commodores are one of the youngest teams in Division I, ranking 319th out of 347 in terms of experience, and their youth showed at times.
The Commodores committed 10 turnovers in the first 20 minutes. It was only after Fuller’s driving layup and Jeter’s basket in the last 90 seconds of the period that Vanderbilt built a 24-19 cushion.
Martin had hoped to build on his team’s first SEC road win in two years earlier this week at LSU. “It’s a daily lesson with our team,” the first-year coach said. “We obviously didn’t handle winning on the road very well.”