ALBUQUERQUE -- With about two minutes left in fourth-seeded Vanderbilt's second round game against Harvard on Thursday, after the Crimson had cut an 18-point deficit down to five, one of the giant screens at The Pit showed a list that looked like this:
2008 No. 13 Siena 83-62
2010 No.13 Murray State 66-65
2011 No.12 Richmond 69-66
2012 No.12 Harvard ????
"I saw that and I looked away immediately," says Vanderbilt senior forward Lance Goulbourne. "I was annoyed. This is a new year, a new team. We don't care about the past."
Whether or not the Commodores care, their 79-70 victory over Harvard was momentous. So many mid-majors had their shining moment at Vanderbilt's expense in recent years that the school could have changed its nickname to the Goliaths. But on Thursday Vanderbilt finally lived up to its seeding. Save for the opening third of the contest and then the final few minutes when Harvard made the game look closer than it was, Vanderbilt dominated.
"It really means a lot for the seniors to be our last time in the NCAA tournament. Just to kind of get that monkey off our back and win a close game in the first round," said guard Brad Tinsley." It just means a lot to us old guys, the coaching staff and the program."
Added coach Kevin Stallings: "I'm glad they got to experience this because this was the only success that they had not experienced since being in our program."
Vanderbilt will play No. 4 Wisconsin on Saturday, and the Commodores will likely be a looser group then they were against Harvard. Vanderbilt's history of first-game flops added some jitters, and there was the hype surrounding the so-called "Brain Bowl." NCAA President Mark Emmert sat behind the Harvard bench, making sure to be seen at a game involving players who most represent the "student" in student-athlete.
"There were some nerves on both ends," Tinsley said. "But I thought we did a good job settling in and playing our game."
It took about 15 minutes of game time, before it happened, but Vanderbilt stopped making mistakes, stopped missing open looks, and built a 10-point lead at the half that it pushed to 18 after the break. John Jenkins (27 points) led the way, but it was not one player or element that keyed Vanderbilt's victory. The sum of its parts was just far greater than Harvard's.
"The biggest cue for us is being poised," Jenkins says. "I think leadership is definitely a factor in that guys huddled up and decided we need to lock down and get rebounds down the stretch, and we did that when we had to."
The Commodores greatest obstacle turned out to be lethargy. After building such a large lead, they started playing as if their only goal was to run out the clock, which allowed Harvard to sneak back into the game behind the shooting of sophomore guard Laurent Rivard, who made six of seven three point attempts and finished with a team-high 20.
"I think when we got that big lead we kind of relaxed a little bit," Taylor said. "When they started making the run, we kind of got a little timid. We started standing on offense and defense. Then we kind of righted the ship. Other years maybe this outcome wouldn't have happened, but we have the experience now. We have guys on the team that have a strong will to win, and we weren't going to let that happen again. So we righted the ship and now we're sitting here."
Stallings admitted that as he watched the lead dwindle, "some nightmares from the past might have crept" into his players' minds. "We were playing not to lose," he said. "That may be a function of what's happened the last two years with these kids in the first round."
But this year supplied a different ending, and with that important first victory out of the way, the question is what more can Vanderbilt accomplish? It is a team built for a long tournament run, with experience, size up front and a bevy of excellent shooters. Will getting off the schneid in the opening game be the Commodores' lone accomplishment or the first of many?
Said Stallings: ""I'll just say that it feels pretty good to be playing on Saturday."