Freije's finest hour: Vandy rallies past UT, 61-58

NASHVILLE-- Behind a scintillating second-half performance from senior Matt Freije, Vanderbilt rallied past Tennessee 61-58 Wednesday, essentially securing its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997 and electrifying a banged out Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt (19-7, 8-7) trailed throughout, but Freije would not allow the Dores to wilt. "Matt willed them to victory," said UT coach Buzz Peterson.

NASHVILLE-- Matt Freije sat down with 7:41 to play and realized these were going to be his final minutes in Memorial Gym.

"I just wanted to make the most of those seven minutes," he said.

Mission accomplished.

Behind a scintillating second-half flurry from Freije, Vanderbilt rallied past Tennessee 61-58 Wednesday, essentially securing its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997 and electrifying a banged out Memorial Gym.

Vanderbilt (19-7, 8-7) trailed throughout, but Freije would not allow the Dores to wilt. Freije scored 13 consecutive Vanderbilt points during a 15-minute stretch in the second half, but still Tennessee led 51-47 with 3:59 to play.

A Freije three-point play brought Vanderbilt to 51-50, then a Corey Smith three-pointer tied the game 53-53 with 2:45 to play. C.J. Watson answered for the Vols with a drive, but Freije blew the roof off the old building with a three-pointer from the wing with two minutes to play, giving Vanderbilt its first lead since 3-2.

"Matt willed them to victory," said UT coach Buzz Peterson.

Russell Lakey extended VU's lead to 58-55 with 0:56 left with a brilliant, spinning layup. UT then sealed its own fate when Brandon Crump committed an intentional foul out of frustration with 0:27 left and Vanderbilt leading 58-55.

"They basically gift-wrapped it for us," Freije said.

The Commodores hit three free throws on the possession, taking a 61-55 lead with 25 seconds left, and eventually the clock expired with VU on top.

A victorious Matt Freije pumps his fist after the game. At right is fellow senior Russell Lakey; in foreground is Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson. (VUAD / Neil Brake)
"I have never wanted a game more down the stretch," Freije said.

That was clearly evident, as the 6-foot-10 senior posted up strong, floated on the perimeter and scored from the foul line throughout the second half. At one point, Freije hit five of nine shots while his teammates were 0-for-7.

"At times, we put too much pressure on Matt," said Lakey, also making his farewell appearance at Memorial Gym. "We just stand around and look for him to score. But at times, we need him to do that. He stepped up and made big baskets."

Tennessee (14-12, 6-9) put together its strongest road effort of the season, slowing Vanderbilt's attack and getting a balanced offensive attack, led by Scooter McFadgon (13 points), Crump (12) and C.J. Watson (10). But some crucial missed free throws down the stretch opened the door for Vanderbilt.

McFadgon, a 93-percent free throw shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with UT leading 51-45 with under 5 minutes to play. He again missed the front end with UT leading 51-47 with 3:49 left.

"On the road, you have to make your free throws," Peterson said. "I thought we would win the game if we got to the free throw line."

But in the end, a raucous Memorial Gym crowd saw the Commodores close out the home season with a 15-2 record.

"I'm proud of what ticks inside this team," Kevin Stallings said. "They haven't given in all year."

The victory has Vanderbilt on the brink of the NCAA Tournament, but after getting passed over in 2000 despite strong credentials, Stallings is not ready to punch the Commodores' ticket just yet.

"I learned my lesson four years ago," Stallings said. "If we win the SEC Tournament, we will be going to the NCAA Tournament. Anything short of that, I'm not sure."

One thing he can be sure of is that his best player closed out his Memorial Gym career in memorable fashion.

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Bill Trocchi is online editor at Athlon Sports.


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