The Vanderbilt Commodores finally are winning just the kind of close games they couldn't finish earlier this season.
Kedren Johnson hit all four of his free throws in the final 19.8 seconds, and the 10th-seeded Commodores upset No. 7 seed Arkansas 75-72 Thursday night in their first chance at defending their Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
"We have more composure, more confidence that we're going to win because we have won some," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've won some close ones. That's the only thing that gives you confidence to win close ones is to win close ones."
The Commodores (15-16) lost the top six players off that title team with three now playing in the NBA. They will play No. 2 seed Kentucky in the quarterfinals Friday night in a rematch of last year's championship game. Kentucky beat the Commodores 60-58 in Nashville and 74-70 in Lexington in the regular season.
"We were just trying to make it to the next day regardless of who we had to play," junior forward Rod Odom said. "Our biggest goal was just to make it to Friday. We're happy to be playing on Friday."
Arkansas (19-13) lost for the 12th time in 13 games away from Fayetteville including three times on neutral courts. Not even the fans calling the hogs helped it feel enough like home as the Razorbacks last led at 9-7. They also now have lost five straight tournament openers, the last two under coach Mike Anderson.
"It's disappointing for me from that standpoint," Anderson said. "It gives me the mindset, 'You know what? We ain't gonna let it happen again.' But there's nothing you can do. Vandy played better than we did today, and we'll learn from it. We'll learn from it, and hopefully it'll make us better as we hopefully continue to play."
Odom led Vanderbilt with a season-high 20 points, Kyle Fuller had 19, Johnson finished with 13 and Dai-Jon Parker 11.
BJ Young led Arkansas with 16 points. Marshawn Powell had 13 before fouling out late and Michael Qualls added 10.
These young Commodores made it way too interesting as Arkansas clawed its way back, trimming a 59-43 lead to 70-68 on a pair of free throws by Young with 50.9 seconds left. Then Vanderbilt, which had hit as many 3-pointers in the second half as free throws (6 of 15), hit 5 of 6 at the line in clinching the win in the final 19.8 seconds.
"It's a hard loss," Arkansas guard Rashad Madden said.
Only three of the current Commodores even averaged more than three minutes a game on last season's team, and the growing pains were very obvious all of this season as the Commodores racked up 10 close losses in the SEC including one in overtime, two by four points, one by two points and a pair of road games by a point.
Page 2 of 2 - But the Commodores now have won five of their last six, and they used their shooting prowess beyond the arc. Vanderbilt ranks eighth out of 347 Division I teams, taking 43.6 percent of its shots from 3-point range, and third nationally scoring 38.5 percent of its points off 3s.
Vanderbilt finished 17 of 30 at the line with Odom missing eight of his 11 attempts. Stallings said they would have lost this game earlier in the season.
"We're more calm, even though we didn't look it at times in that last run," Stallings said. "We shot ourselves in the foot. If we make those free throws, then we don't have an issue. If Rod makes his free throws — I mean basically, and Rod's one of our better foul shooters, so this was a complete reversal of the way he's been shooting them. So he'll make them tomorrow."
Five different Commodores hit at least one 3, and Fuller got it started coming for a 3-pointer that tied it up at 7 with 14:36 left. Clarke dunked to give Arkansas its last lead at 9-7. Johnson tied it up at 9 with a layup, and Fuller's layup with 12:42 left put the Commodores ahead to stay in a 24-8 run capped by Odom hitting his third 3-pointer of the half for a 31-17 lead with 7:28 left.
Vanderbilt wound up shooting better beyond the arc than overall, hitting 42.9 percent (12 of 28) from deep compared to 41.1 percent (23 of 56). Arkansas tried to keep pace despite shooting 28 percent from 3-point range in league play, and the Razorbacks finished 4 of 16. Anderson was more disappointed by his Razorbacks shooting just 20 of 34 at the line themselves.
"They fought a lot harder than we did," Anderson said of Vanderbilt.
The Commodores were up 37-23 when Arkansas scored seven straight to trim the lead, and Fuller hit a free throw with 1:03 left giving Vanderbilt a 38-30 lead that would have been bigger except the Commodores missed at the buzzer when trying to set up the final shot.
Arkansas pulled within 38-34 on a pair of free throws by Powell in the opening minute of the second. Parker hit a 3 that started a 13-4 spurt by Vanderbilt to push the lead back to double digits. Odom hit his fourth of five 3s to give the Commodores their biggest lead of the game at 59-43 midway through the half.