Column: Redhawks show feisty nature in opening loss to Vandy

Vanderbilt guard Maxwell Evans fights for the ball with Southeast Missouri State's Alex Caldwell (0) and Nygal Russell, right, in the first half Wednesday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mark Humphrey ~ Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The last time the Southeast Missouri State men's basketball program took to the court for a regular-season game before Wednesday, the Redhawks allowed Belmont to score 10 of the game's initial 11 points en route to an 18-point first-half lead.

On Wednesday, essentially the same scenario unfolded -- the difference being Vanderbilt was the opponent this time -- as the Redhawks allowed the Commodores to score the game's first 11 points and the hosts eventually led by 17 in the opening period.

However, there was a seismic difference between THIS edition of the Redhawks, as compared to last year's team.

Over the final 10 minutes of the first half, Southeast battled back with a 23-6 run on the Southeastern Conference foe and tied the game at 32 just before halftime.

"I really think so," fifth-year Redhawk coach Rick Ray said when asked if this team is different mentally, "but that remains to be seen. I would say initially, yes, because we didn't roll over when things started to go bad."

Southeast Missouri State coach Rick Ray talks with guard Chris Harris (5) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Commodores pulled away over the final six-plus minutes to win 83-65, but this was a six-point game when Southeast junior Chris Harris hit a jumper with 6:54 remaining.

"The sad part about it is," Ray said, "if you look at the box score, and you see the final score, you'd think 'Hey, that was just a blowout.' But anybody that watched the game will realize that our guys did some really good things."

That is an understatement.

For 24 of the 40-minute contest, Southeast either beat Vanderbilt handily or hung with it possession for possession.

After watching the toughness this group showed in not wilting when given the opportunity, as well as watching the talent this team displayed, it is mind-blowing to think this is the same program that closed out last season with seven losses in its final 10 games by an average of 21-plus points per loss.

Southeast Missouri State forward Sage Tolbert (23) fights for the ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"I feel like we could've come back (in games) last year," Redhawk sophomore forward Sage Tolbert said following the game. "But I feel like our mindset just wasn't right. This year, we are just thinking a lot more positively."

Tolbert mentioned the depth of this year's squad, which was evident in the first half rally by the Redhawks (0-1).

Ray utilized 10 players Wednesday, and the five guys off the bench either each contributed or in the case of junior guard Chris Harris starred.

Harris hit 6 of his 9 shots and led Southeast with 15 points.

"It's just confidence," Harris said. "I put in the work and these guys have confidence in me."

Southeast Missouri State guard Chris Harris, left, battles for a loose ball with forward Darrious Agnew (44) and Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr. (2) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

And Harris wasn't alone in showing the ability to play with the high-major opponent.

Fifth-year senior center Quatarrius Wilson finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds against a long and strong Vanderbilt front line.

Tolbert added nine points and seven boards, while junior post Darrius Agnew added six points off the bench.

"I think (the post) is the strength of our team," Ray said. "And our team is figuring out that they ARE the strength of our team."

The Redhawks outrebounded Vanderbilt 38-35 and 14-10 at the offensive end. The Redhawks took nothing from the Commodore players.

Southeast Missouri State forward Sage Tolbert dives for a loose ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

"I knew we could play with them before the game started," Tolbert said. "They bleed like we bleed and they go to class just like we do.

"I looked at them like they were just another school."

Southeast showed toughness, talent, and confidence, regardless of the final score. Each of those traits is something to build on moving forward.

A lot of the guys in our locker are now believing that we can be good," Tolbert said. "I believed it all along and I came out here tonight trying to beat them. I think the guys see the vision now."

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