After three years, nothing had really gone right. Billy Richmond and Brendan Plavich transferred. Martin Schnedlitz had a knee that was never going to allow him to contribute on a regular basis. Russell Lakey lost his starting point guard job. Scott Hundley could never break into the starting lineup despite his Kentucky Mr. Basketball pedigree. And Matt Freije, well, he was earning accolades, but his SEC mark was 13-35 and he had yet to play in a meaningful game in March.
As the four remaining players were honored Wednesday night inside a passionate Memorial Gym, it was remarkable to consider the changed fortunes of these seniors. While Schnedlitz's bothersome knee never healed, the other three seniors enjoyed remarkable seasons -- seasons that are far from over.
"The seniors deserve every ounce of credit for this season," Kevin Stallings said.
"We've been through too much over the last four years to come in here and lose to UT," said an emotionally drained Freije after Wednesday's 61-58 win. "Thank God we won."
Lakey began the season looking up at Mario Moore, a local dynamo who took over the point guard slot late in his freshman season. The pupil outshining the teacher? Moore had, leaving Lakey no real way to break into the starting lineup.
So what did the kid from California do? Lakey played so well during the SEC season, Kevin Stallings was forced to insert him along side Moore. Two point guards? When they are your two best guards, that's what you do.
Lakey nailed a key three-pointer to beat Auburn, the submitted a six-point, four-assist, zero-turnover effort against Florida. Eventually, Stallings tabbed him to start at Alabama, and the Dores finally ended their SEC road losing streak. He had seven rebounds and five assists in his next start against LSU, earning effusive praise from Stallings.
Stallings clearly respects Lakey's toughness and heart, stating over and over how Lakey never complained about his demotion.
Like Lakey, Hundley also started the year on the bench. Unlike Lakey, he never made it off, but that was more of a factor of Stallings wanting production off the bench than it was a lack of strong play from Hundley. He scored in double figures eight times as a reserve, giving Vanderbilt huge lifts time and again. Fondly referred to as "Scottie Hustle" by the Memorial Maniacs, Hundley persevered in Nashville despite a crowded depth chart and showed the senior savvy this team needed to advance to what is now a likely NCAA Tournament berth.
But it was Freije who received the largest ovation Wednesday night, and that was before he put together one of the best second half performances in memory. The question with Freije had never been about his ability, but why did it not translate into more Vanderbilt victories. As a senior, they finally have, and the player who tries to take on so much responsibility for his team's fortunes on the court has finally seen the victories follow his record number of points.
"I can't think of a better way to leave Memorial Gym than beating UT, especially the way we did," Freijie said.
The seniors scored 28 of the 31 points in the second half, with Freije leading the way with 19.
"You hate to see them go," said junior Corey Smith. "You want to send them out on a good note."
The seniors made sure of that themselves.
Bill Trocchi is online editor at Athlon Sports.
Photo of Matt Freije by Mark Humphrey, Associated Press; other photos copyright 2004 by Whitney D. for VandyMania.com.