Commodores curb Belmont in opener, 74-59

Vanderbilt's men's team dodged a huge landmine Friday in its 2003-04 opener. Ignited by 24 points from Matt Freije, the Commodores downed Belmont 74-59 in a game that christened the Bruins' new $53 million Curb Event Center.

How often does a team have Indiana as Game No. 2 on its slate, and no one is really thinking about it until Game No. 1 against an Atlantic Sun team is in the books?

Yet that was the case Friday for the Vanderbilt Commodores, who realized nothing short of full attention on the opener would do when said opponent is opening a sparkling $53 million facility less than two miles from your own Memorial Gym.

Belmont is a dangerous team, with an inside threat in Adam Mark and some outside marksmen that can fill it up from three. But coach Kevin Stallings had his Commodores focused, and the result was a solid 74-59 win in the 2003-04 season-opener.

"I was almost institutionalized because of this game," Stallings said of his pre-game jitters. "Our guys did a good job of focusing."

SEC preseason Player of the Year Matt Freije led the way for Vanderbilt with 24 points and seven rebounds, looking every bit the part of Leading Man. He played just 12 minutes in the second half, but made them count, igniting the decisive 16-0 run that put the game out of reach with five minutes to play.

"He means a lot," said VU forward Scott Hundley, who chipped in 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench. "He is the focal point of our team. He is the guy that has to get us going in the right direction."

Case in point: Vanderbilt led 47-40 with 10 minutes to play. Hundley hit a layup. Freije then followed a Mario Moore miss, then drained a three-pointer to stretch the lead to 54-40. Ballgame.

This stretch, of course, followed a 17-point effort in the first half.

"Matt was unstoppable in the first half," Stallings said. "He was unstoppable the whole game really. He's probably mad at me that he didn't play more in the second half. I keep telling him it is a marathon, not a sprint."

The Commodores held Mark to 6-for-13 shooting after he led the nation with a .670 field goal percentage last year by sending wave after wave of big men at him. Belmont's other top gun, guard Steve Drabyn, had a nightmarish 0-10 evening and finished with no points.

"Steve Drabyn will never be 0-for-10 again the rest of his life," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said.

Stallings admitted the guard had some open looks, but thought his array of guards hurried the sharpshooter for most of the first half.

One of Vanderbilt's sharpshooters also found the new Curb Event Center to be a difficult place to shoot. Moore was 0-for-6 from the floor, though he did finish with seven assists.

"I thought Mario did a nice job of running our offense in the second half even though he didn't score," Stallings said. "There are not going to be a lot of nights where he doesn't score."

Freshman center Ted Skuchas was solid in his debut, scoring seven points and grabbing five rebounds while forcing Mark into some tough shots at the defensive end.

After Belmont jumped out to a 5-0 lead, Vanderbilt bit back, scoring 20 of the game's next 22 points to take a 20-7 lead. The lead was pushed to 37-21 at halftime.

Belmont slowly closed the gap early in the second half, but the quintet of Russell Lakey, Moore, Julian Terrell, Freije and Hundley kicked off the game-winning run, as Vanderbilt held Belmont scoreless for over five minutes.

So the battle of Nashville belonged to Vanderbilt for the third time in five years in a game that Freije compared to high school because of the short bus trip involved.

"It just had that feel," he said. "It was exciting. I haven't felt that way in four years. It felt good."


Bill Trocchi is the online editor at Athlon Sports. Top Stories