The crowd, so deafening just moments before, was stunned. The life had been sucked out of it after a last-second tip-in by South Carolina's Kerbrell Brown. The Gamecocks escaped 57-55, leaving Vanderbilt dangling at 2-4 in the SEC with games against Kentucky and Florida up next.
"With few exceptions, I thought our guys gave as good an effort as they could give," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who now sports an 0-5 record against USC in Memorial Gym.
Freije tied the game 55-55 with a man-sized tip-in of his own with 0:09.7 to play. After a Vanderbilt timeout, South Carolina's Josh Gunner (17 points) drove up the floor and missed an off-balance leaner. Brown followed the miss, leaving Vanderbilt just 1.9 seconds to answer.
"It is a play that scatters the defense," said USC coach Dave Odom, whose team resides at the top of the SEC East at 5-1. "In case you do miss the shot, it is a difficult blockout. Kerbrell got his hand on it and that was the basketball game."
Carlos Powell made a shot to give USC a 17-16 lead late in the first half when Smith suddenly threw Balkman to the ground and started punching him. Smith was restrained by Vanderbilt assistant Jeff Jackson before the fight escalated further.
Stallings was not shy in the postgame press conference.
"The film will tell us (what happened)," Stallings said. "I'm guessing what happened is their guy hit our guy in the mouth. If I hadn't grabbed our guy, our guy would have killed their guy.
Stallings then issued a warning.
"But I'd be worried about (Balkman's) teeth in the next game, if that's what happened."
Vanderbilt plays at South Carolina on Valentine's Day.
Odom expressed regret at the incident.
"All I saw was their guy on top of ours whaling away," Odom said. "But I in no way say that is all that happened. I don't know. It was a very unfortunate incident. It is not something I'm proud of, it is not something our players are proud of and I'm sure it is not something Vanderbilt is proud of. If our guy was at fault, it will be handled internally, I can assure you of that."
Smith will miss the Kentucky game as he serves an SEC-mandated one-game suspension for fighting.
As for the game, it was a slugfest, even outside of the fight. Both teams played hard defensively, causing a lot of ugly possessions and even more missed shots. Vanderbilt shot 42 percent for the game, South Carolina 33.
Freije (26 points, 11 rebounds) struggled from the field all night, but drained a three-pointer with 2:06 to play that tied the game at 53-53. Vanderbilt had two chances to take the lead, but Freije was whistled for an offensive foul on one possession and turned the ball over on the next that led to a South Carolina lay-up.
Freije tied the game on his tip-in, but the Gamecocks wrestled the game away just eight seconds later.
"We're very disappointed, but I have faith these guys will come back and do the best they can to get ready for Saturday," Stallings said.
Bill Trocchi is the online editor at Athlon Sports.