With 12:25 left in the game, it was looking dicey. The Ole Miss Rebels had erased a 12-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 44-44, and had all the momentum in their favor.
But Vanderbilt, looking every bit the part of an NCAA Tournament team over the last eight days, would roar back to steamroll Ole Miss with an 18-2 run and cruise to a 77-65 SEC victory, its third straight. The victory lifted the Commodores to 18-6, 7-6 in the SEC, and moved them into a three-way tie for second place in the Eastern Division with South Carolina and Florida.
And what's this? Vandy has now won two straight SEC road games, after previously losing 14 in a row in a streak dating back to 2002.
"Hopefully no one will be talking about our inability to win on the road any more," Head Coach Kevin Stallings said drily.
In post-game interviews, Stallings said the win over Alabama one week earlier at Tuscaloosa had helped steel the Commodores to reach deep and overcome the Rebels' second-half flurry. And indeed, when Ole Miss made its run early in the second half, Vanderbilt was ready with a counter-punch.
"We did a good job of digging in when things got tough in the second half," said Kevin Stallings. "I thought our defense down that stretch was the key."
"We're playing our best basketball when we should be, and hopefully we can continue it," said Freije.
Vanderbilt, a team that has struggled in Februaries past under Stallings, stretched its record to 4-2 this month, and has now won five out of seven dating back to a Jan. 31 home win over Kentucky. With three regular-season SEC games left, two at home, Vanderbilt appears in outstanding shape to (knock on wood) take part in some March Madness in the next few weeks.
Freije, who entered the game only five points shy of Cox's total of 1,724 points, became Vandy's all-time scoring king on a 5-foot garbage basket midway through the first half. The senior from Shawnee Mission, Kan., finished with 20 to lead the team, including 10-of-13 on free throws.
Freije's entire family made the trip to Oxford to see him break the record. Following the game, he was presented by his teammates with the game ball -- which he was graciously allowed to keep by the Ole Miss coaching staff.
David Przybyszewski continued his recent run of outstanding play with 16 points (his seventh straight game in double figures), and helped put the clamps defensively on Ole Miss superstar Justin Reed. But on this night it was probably the stellar guard play of Mario Moore and Russell Lakey that gave the Commodores that extra edge -- Vandy's starting backcourt combined for 27 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists and only four turnovers against Ole Miss's press.
Moore, Vandy's shortest player at 5-11, finished the game as the team's leading rebounder with seven. Lakey, now a permanent fixture in the starting lineup, dished out eight assists and scored a key 3-pointer that stretched the lead to 51-44 in the middle of the Commodores' big run.
"I really liked the poise we showed in that run in the second half," Stallings said.
For Ole Miss it was a two-man show, as Aaron Harper (29 points) and Justin Reed (21) combined to score 50 of the Rebels' 65 points. No other Ole Miss player scored in double figures. Ole Miss dropped to 12-12, 4-9 in the SEC.
The Commodores return home Saturday for a 7 p.m. home game vs. No. 7 Mississippi State. Tennessee comes calling the following Wednesday for the last home game of the season, and Vanderbilt finishes the regular season at Georgia on Saturday, March 6.
The Commodores endured a turbulent plane ride through some violent weather in their travel to Oxford. Mario Moore said later that he had become airsick and thrown up twice, but his stat line for the game didn't reflect it. The sophomore guard from Antioch High School finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds. "I thought Mario was the key player for us," Stallings said.
Vanderbilt had lost eight straight games to the Rebels in Oxford since its last win here, on Jan. 11, 1989. That season was the final one at Vanderbilt for head coach C. M. Newton and senior stars Barry Goheen, Barry Booker and Frank Kornet. That team advanced to the NCAA Tournament but was eliminated in the first round.
Matt Freije's career total now stands at 1,739 points. He has at least four games left to play, and could have several more should the Commodores advance in conference and national tournament play.
Ole Miss scored first on a basket by Reed, but Vanderbilt took a 3-2 lead when Corey Smith scored on a perfectly executed backdoor cut. The Commodores never trailed after that, but Ole Miss did tie the game once at 44-44 with 12:25 to play.