It was a game filled with more tempo changes than a Britney Spears wedding. Vandy started cold, and Auburn jumped out to a 5-0 lead. But Vandy put on a clinic for the rest of the first half and outscored Auburn 34-15. Over about a ten-minute stretch, the Commodores exhibited the same dominance they had shown in a 35-point win at TCU the previous Saturday, with backdoor cuts, 3-point shooting, and crisp passes to set up open jumpers.
As the first-half buzzer sounded, Matt Freije buried a 3-pointer to send the Dores to the locker room up 34-20. The crowd in excess of 12,000 was delighted. Giddy, black-and-gold wearing fans were talking confidently about Saturday's game at Kentucky-- could this be the year we break that horrendous streak in Rupp?
But much like Spears' wedding to Jason Alexander, the first half came and went much too quickly. Auburn came out firing in the second half, ready to annul the perfect start that Vanderbilt had orchestrated in pre-SEC competition. Auburn's game was nearly perfect for the first 14 minutes of the second half-- at one point the muscular Tigers hit shots on nine consecutive trips down the floor. Vandy's 14-point lead would soon become a 5-point deficit.
Stunned Memorial Maniacs had flashbacks of last year's home game vs. Kentucky. How could this team fall apart, and why now? 3-pointer after 3-pointer boinged off the rim. Mario Moore missed everything on a wide-open shot; Matt Freije had some great looks that just rattled out. The wheels were coming off. As Auburn rallied to take a 53-48 lead with 5:30 left, it seemed he energy inside Memorial had been sucked out and replaced by the frigid air outside.
But suddenly, the Vandy defense found itself. How or why can't really be explained-- but that old building brought some energy back to the team, and what happened next is now just another chapter in Memorial Gym's storied history.
Auburn started committing fouls to send Vanderbilt to the line. The Dores were still shaking off the ice on the rim, but slowly Vanderbilt cut into the lead, clawing and fighting its way back. Scott Hundley tipped out a missed Freije free-throw to give Vandy another possession. Russell Lakey took a charge, and Matt kept making free throws to draw us closer.
Under 90 seconds left to go, Vandy down by one, the ball goes in to Freije... he turns, looks at the basket, and sees the triple-team coming... but there standing unguarded at the 3-point arc is Lakey. Sometimes maligned for his outside shooting, Lakey is wide-open, almost too open. Never mind that Vandy had missed all of its 3-point attempts in the half; never mind Lakey had made only one 3-pointer the previous 11 games. He calmly drained the trey, smooth as silk.
Memorial erupted into a sea of noise and standing and cheering fans. It was one of the loudest moments I can remember in Memorial in the 20 years I have been a fan.
The noise continued, and it rattled Auburn. Trailing 55-53, the Plainsmen came down the floor and sent the ball into the post; nothing doing. Killingsworth fouled Terrell, who hit one of two free throws to extend the lead to 56-53. The Tigers failed again to score, and Lakey calmly sank two more free throws to seal the deal.
The fans leaving Memorial were relieved and thrilled. This SEC home opener was critically important for this team considering the next four games: at No. 5 Kentucky, at Tennessee, at home vs. Florida, at Arkansas.
Kevin Stallings' team had passed another test, and showed tremendous grit and fight. The seniors came up big when it mattered most. The team fought through one of the longest dry stretches of the season, and found a way to win. As a result, they're tied for the SEC East lead, at least for three more days.
"Coach kept telling us that someone would step up and hit a big shot for us," said Lakey after the game.
Who knew it would be Russell?
Photos by Neil Brake, courtesy Vanderbilt athletics.