The ebb and flow of the game has been well-documented by everyone from ESPN to the morning newspapers. As for me, I'm still tired from not being able to fall asleep until the early morning hours due to euphoria about the win. Last Wednesday night I couldn't have felt much lower, after the dreaded Orange had kicked us in Knoxville. But endurance and faith is a great part of life for any Vanderbilt fan, and last night many of us were rewarded.
Just entering into the gym, you could tell it was a different game. Half an hour before game time, I had to push my way through the student section just to get down to press row to grab a couple of sheets on the game before heading up to 3F. The students were standing and cheering through the pre-game warmups, and just walking through that adrenalin-filled section got me even more pumped up for the game. Bless those students! They were loud and on their feet nearly the entire game, and they were noticed by all. In the post-game press conference Coach Stallings called the crowd, "The best I have ever seen since I have been here at Vanderbilt."
The fans were ready, but was the team? Up in 3F I would say we were nervous to say the least. Everyone knew how much was at stake in this game. A win, and we would come out of the first four games 2-2 in conference play with games against UK and Florida in the books; a loss, and we'd be looking up at every team in the division and confidence would be a serious question mark.
The duel kept the capacity crowd of 14,168 on the edge of its seat all night. Florida was using pressure, and Vandy was trying to be more methodical. Florida's tactics were simple: try and get us to put up a bad shot or cause a turnover on the press, and get the fast break going. "I wouldn't call it a press," said a somber Billy Donovan after the game. "Vanderbilt beat us off the press, they knew how to handle the pressure."
The big key was Matt Freije's return. Coming off two poor games, he simply commanded the floor at times; wouldn't you know, it was a shot that rattled around the rim and dropped that finally got him back on track. Freije kept Vandy around in the first half, along with Jason Holwerda.
Say what you will, Jason may not score in bunches like many of us had hoped three years ago, but he continually frustrated Matt Walsh and tallied seven first-half points, keeping Vandy within one point by the half (32-31). Still-nervous fans worked their way through the gym at halftime... something had to give to release all this pent-up emotion, but what would burst the bubble???
Smith got an open-court breakaway and was headed up for a dunk when Matt Walsh drug him down in an intentional foul... and then, unbelievably, Walsh walked away, causing Corey Smith to nearly lose control of his emotions. "It's called etiquette...you help someone up after a hard foul," said Smith. Smith looked as though he was ready to tear someone limb from limb, had his teammates and coaches not restrained him under the basket.
Luckily, instead of retaliating Walsh, Corey let his play do the talking in the last 17+ minutes of the game. Up to that point, Smith had had just a single bucket, but he proceeded to take over the game for the next few minutes, knocking down two wide-open 3-pointers and making a couple of beautiful passes. He was also key in helping Vandy break Florida's press and pushing the lead to five, then six, then ten.
Then Mario Moore stepped up, to the delight of the Commodore faithful. First one 3-pointer, then another, and on the third time down the floor, yet another. The roof nearly exploded off the old building. Hearing the student body scream with absolute delight, Moore baited the crowd for more noise by putting a hand to his ear. Mario, who only had three points at the half, finished with 21, including 5-of-6 from 3-point land.
The 16-point margin sent a message that Vanderbilt is a team to be reckoned with in the SEC. When the final buzzer sounded, the students rushed the floor and paraded for at least 30 minutes.
Lost in much of the thrill of victory were solid performances from players like Russell Lakey, who went 3-for-4 from the field including a couple of slashing lay-ups right through the heart of the Florida defense... Ted Skuchas, who entered early because of Julian Terrell's foul trouble and gave Vanderbilt a huge physical presence in the lane... and several others. Nine players saw double-digit time on the court, and everyone on the bench played.
A sellout in Memorial and a Vandy win over a ranked opponent. Does life get much better? The win over a higher-ranked team almost assures that Vandy will stay ranked for another week, and with Kentucky's loss to Georgia earlier in the day, the Commodores ended Saturday just one game behind the SEC East leaders
Now comes a week off before Vandy heads to Arkansas for another tough road game. Somehow, someway, if this team can pull out an SEC win at Bud Walton Arena, it will keep things exciting for the rest of the season.