Torrid Georgia blisters VU in season finale, 71-61

ATHENS, Ga.-- Behind Rashad Wright's 21 points, including five 3-pointers, the homestanding Georgia Bulldogs rolled up a 23-point first-half lead and coasted to a 71-61 win over Vanderbilt Saturday before 9,217 spectators. The Commodores slipped to a No. 4 seed for the SEC Tournament, but at 19-8, 8-8 in the SEC, they remain solidly in the hunt for an at-large NCAA Tournament invitation.

ATHENS, Ga.-- How valuable is point guard Rashad Wright to the Georgia Bulldogs? Without him in the lineup, Georgia looked lost back on Feb. 11 in a 61-39 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville.

But with Wright back in the lineup-- playing his last home game Saturday at Stegeman Coliseum, no less-- the Bulldogs looked like worldbeaters. Behind Wright's 21 points, including five 3-pointers, the homestanding Bulldogs rolled up a 23-point first-half lead and coasted to a 71-61 win over Vandy before 9,217 spectators.

Victorious on its own senior night three nights earlier, Vanderbilt (19-8, 8-8 SEC) had come to Athens eager to spoil Georgia's senior night-- but it wasn't to be. The Bulldogs (15-12, 7-9) buried Vandy in the first half with a barrage of seven 3-pointers, six of which came from starting guards Rashad Wright and Levi Stukes. The Commodores fought valiantly in the second half to cut into an 18-point halftime deficit, but could never carve the margin to less than nine.

Stukes added 18 points for Georgia, and senior Chris Daniels contributed 12. The Bulldogs got it done on the defensive end as well-- their tight belly-to-belly defense limited frigid Vandy to 42% shooting, and held leading scorer Matt Freije to 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting.

"Georgia's a good team-- really good, and very difficult to play," said Kevin Stallings afterwards. "They lost their first two conference games at home, and didn't lose another after that.

"We just got outplayed. There are going to be nights in this league when that happens, and it happened tonight."

With Vanderbilt's loss disappeared any hopes for a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament-- the Commodores slipped to a No. 4 seed and will face Ole Miss at 6:30 p.m. CT Thursday in the first round. But at 19-8, 8-8 in the SEC, the Commodores remain solidly in the hunt for an at-large NCAA Tournament invitation.

The game's first 15 minutes were perhaps Vandy's most miserable of the season, as Georgia roared out to a 33-10 lead before the Commodores seemed to realize what had hit them. Freije went scoreless for the game's first 15 minutes, but hit two straight 3-pointers to help Vandy narrow the lead to 38-20 at halftime.

"We just didn't come out with the energy and enthusiasm we needed to match theirs," said Freije. "They were hot, and they played a lot more aggressive than we did."

With Freije suffering through an off-night, no one really stepped up to help relieve the scoring load. Mario Moore led Vandy in scoring with 11 points, but missed two easy layups, shot a number of airballs from outside, and ended only 5-of-14 from the floor. Dawid Przybyszewski hit two early 3-pointers, but ended up playing only 12 minutes as Stallings used Julian Terrell and Ted Skuchas to combat Georgia's robust inside play.

"We've got some individuals that aren't playing like we need them to play," Stallings said. "And it's been a little bit of a stretch now, it's not been just one game. We've got to get all of our key parts going in the right direction, and that's my job to help them do that."

In many ways the game was similar to Vandy's road loss to South Carolina-- after falling behind by double digits in the first half, Vandy was unable to mount a credible threat, despite shooting a respectable 49% in the second half. Georgia out-rebounded Vandy 33-28.

And another ugly bugaboo resurrected itself to bite Vandy-- poor free throw shooting. The Commodores shot a dismal 6-of-16 (37.5%) from the line. Julian Terrell (right) alone was 2-of-9.

"What can you say? We'd been shooting them well, and we didn't shoot them well tonight," Stallings said.

Georgia's win kept its faint hopes for an NCAA bid alive. Coach Dennis Felton's Bulldogs, one of the SEC's most unpredictable teams, have now won their last six games at Stegeman Coliseum, a streak which includes wins over SEC East division leaders Kentucky and Florida.

Vandy's next action is Thursday in the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Should the Commodores get past Ole Miss in Thursday's 6:30 p.m. game, they would meet up with Mississippi State on Friday at 6:30. Mississippi State secured the regular-season SEC championship Saturday with a comeback win over Alabama.

GAME NOTES:

Vanderbilt's regular-season record of 19-8 is its best since the Eddie Fogler-coached team of 1993 finished the regular season 25-4. The Commodores' 8-8 SEC record matched Kevin Stallings' previous best mark as Commodore head coach, recorded in 1999-2000 in his first season at Vandy.

Matt Freije became the first player in Vanderbilt history to score over 1,800 points in a career -- the senior's eight points upped his career total to 1,801. Freije became the school's all-time leading scorer ten days ago in a road game vs. Ole Miss. Freije also finished the regular season as the SEC scoring champion with 19.1 points per game.

Georgia honored seniors Chris Daniels, Jonas Hayes, Damien Wilkins and Rashad Wright in ceremonies before the game.

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Photos by Brent Wiseman, Copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.


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