Commodores make all the 'winning' plays at the end

Any win over Kentucky is sweet, any time... but this one was especially delicious, and it could hardly have come at a more opportune time for the Commodores, whose season was teetering precariously on the brink of disaster. In the wake of another unforgettable win that saw giddy students storm the courts, the pre-season dream of returning to the Big Dance is gloriously alive.

I don't know about you folks, but with about 12:55 left to play in the second half, I was having some serious flashbacks. Saturday's game vs. Kentucky at Memorial Gym was unfolding in a fashion eerily similar to the same game last year.

You remember that game, surely? Just like this one, it was nationally televised by ESPN. Just like this one, Vanderbilt got the crowd all fired up by jumping out to take a double-digit lead midway through the first half; and just like this one, Tubby Smith's Wildcats had flexed their estimable muscles, and had come roaring back to take a double-digit lead in the second half. (Kentucky went on to win last year, 74-52.)

But wait... at just about that point in this year's game... something remarkable happened. With about 12:55 to play, Vanderbilt's veteran players seemed to say, "We've seen this movie before, and we're not going to let it happen again."

What happened next will no doubt go down in the storied lore of Memorial Gymnasium. A Vanderbilt team that many had left for dead, stared deep within itself, and staged one of the greatest defensive performances ever witnessed within these hallowed walls. Forgive me while I gush, but... this gallant bunch of Commodores held the No. 5 team in the nation to seven-- SEVEN-- measly points in the last 13 minutes of this game. (In case you missed it, Vandy won, 66-60.)

This kind of thing just doesn't happen. Usually, in cases like this, the almighty Big Blue fan base simply reaches down and wills its team to victory. Typically, notoriously unfazed by hostile environments, Kentucky adroitly engineers the big plays necessary to squeeze out a victory in situations like this.

Not today, though.

Any win over Kentucky is sweet, any time. Aging Vandy fans still rhapsodize about memorable wins over the Big Blue going back 30, 40, 50 years.

But this one was especially delicious, and it could hardly have come at a more opportune time for the Commodores, whose season was teetering precariously on the brink of disaster.

Now look at 'em. Today, the 14-4 Commodores own "quality" wins over SEC powers Florida and Kentucky; and hey, don't forget about the wins over Michigan and Indiana. Yeah, they lost to South Carolina here less than 72 hours ago, and they have yet to manufacture an SEC road win. But for now, in the wake of another unforgettable win that saw giddy students storm the courts, the pre-season dream of returning to the Big Dance is gloriously alive.

How the heck did this happen? This is a game that surely would have been a loss last season. Sure, as Kevin Stallings said, it was a total team thing and all that. But in my book it's Vanderbilt's three never-say-die seniors that deserve the lion's share of the credit.

Each of them-- Russell Lakey, Matt Freije, Scott Hundley-- made at least one huge play in the final three minutes that saw Vandy rally from a 60-56 deficit to win by 6.

Hundley, who started the game in place of suspended Corey Smith, ended a Kentucky possession with a steal with 2:32 left, and found Dan Cage open on the wing for the 3-pointer that gave Vandy a 61-60 lead. 'Twas the freshman, Cage, who knocked down the shot, which he's very good at... but give Hundley the credit on both ends, for stealing the ball, and finding Cage open off the screen.

"We ran that break to perfection," Hundley said later. "Dan is the guy you want to have open on the 3, and he was open, and he made it."

Freije, who led the team in scoring with 20 points, could easily have ended up the goat when he missed the second of two free throws. But the Commodore defense subsequently made perhaps the finest defensive stop of the season, and Kentucky lost the ball out of bounds as the shot clock expired with 1:05 left to play.

After Hundley missed on a close-in shot, the Wildcats, trailing 62-60, rebounded and had another chance to tie or take the lead. This time it was Lakey who made the big play-- his quick hand deflected a Cliff Hawkins pass up in the air, and Lakey came down with the ball. (Sweet revenge for Lakey, for it was Hawkins who had abused him in last year's game.)

For a moment, Lakey thought about throwing the ball downcourt to a streaking Hundley. "I wasn't sure he could make the play, and it's better to be safe than sorry. I wouldn't have had a butt left if I'd have thrown that away, with Coach chewing me out," Lakey said, laughing. "So I just decided to hold it."

He did, and Hawkins quickly sent him to the free throw line with 0:17 left. He missed the front end of a one-and-one.... gaaah! But here came Mr. SEC Preseason Player of the Year, Freije, to tap the rebound back up top to a waiting Hundley. It was a game-saving play.

"That's something we practice every day," Freije said, giving credit to his head coach.

Lastly, it was Hundley again who was money in the bank on the two free throws that extended the lead to 64-60. So big was this win for Hundley, who played high school ball just a few minutes away from Lexington's Rupp Arena, that he could hardly even put into words afterwards what it meant.

"In my four years I would have never dreamed of anything like this," he said. "I can't really explain it. I don't even remember shooting."

Yes, Hundley had been part of the 86-73 win over UK two years ago, but he'd only played six minutes in that game. To win like this, and to be the one to ice the game with his free throws, was almost more than the 6-5 senior could fathom.

It was almost more than Commodore fans could fathom as well, to humble a proud team that had annihilated Vandy by 62 points not even 12 full months ago. A critical home SEC game, and perhaps a season, were almost miraculously rescued.

"We've been talking about for some time to make 'winning' plays," said Stallings. "We've made so many 'non-winning' plays at the end of games, and our guys just made one 'winning' play after another today."

Many will recall that a year ago, UK's first win over Vanderbilt was the game that sprung the Wildcats on an unprecedented win streak. Kentucky breezed through the rest of the SEC schedule unbeaten, won the SEC Tournament, and didn't stop winning until it reached the Elite Eight. "It was in the second half of that Vanderbilt game," wrote columnists from the Bluegrass, "that Kentucky realized the dominance of which it was capable."

You don't suppose Saturday's win over the Big Blue might have the same effect on Vanderbilt... now do you?

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Photos by Mark Humphrey, Associated Press.

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