That's the good news. The bad? Commodores (20-8) must now face SEC regular season champion Mississippi State Friday at 6:30 CT in the quarterfinal round (Jefferson-Pilot TV; 650 WSM-AM). The Bulldogs, the top seed in the SEC West, earned a bye for Thursday and should be well-rested for Vanderbilt.
But enough of that for now-- Vanderbilt has 24 hours to enjoy a win that came in the "Taking Care of Business" category. On a long day of hoops in which all four of the first-round games were pretty much one-sided stinkers, Vanderbilt's methodical win provided the Georgia Dome crowd with little suspense-- not that any of the 600 or so fans in black and gold were complaining. The Commodores played with a level of urgency essential for tournament play, putting the Rebels out of the game early without ever really letting them back in it.
"We've been practicing hard, because it's win or go home right now," said the Commodores' All-SEC first-teamer Matt Freije. "We'd like to stick around in Atlanta for as long as we can, and we have to win tomorrow in order to do that."
The Rebels hung tough for the game's first eight minutes and trailed just 17-16, before the Commodores went on a 12-2 run. David Przybyszewski, who finished with a team high 17 points, scored seven straight points in the game-turning run on a reverse layup, a turnaround baby hook, and a 3-pointer.
"It was very nice to come back and shoot well," Przybyszewski said. "The previous three games, I wasn't shooting that well. I was very happy to come back. I got into it early-- I made my first five shots I think."
Vanderbilt maintained a double-digit lead and led at halftime 42-27. Ole Miss would cut the lead to ten points at 58-48 on two Reed free throws with seven minutes left in the game; but the Commodores scored the game's next nine points, and didn't allow the tired Rebels a field goal in the game's final seven-minute stretch
In the first meeting between the two teams on Feb. 11, a 77-65 Vanderbilt win, Ole Miss' Aaron Harper and Justin Reed had combined for 50 total points-- but on Thursday the Commodores limited the Rebels' two-man show to just 25 total. Coach Rod Barnes' Rebels shot a woeful 31% against the Commodores' 51%
"We felt we had to do a much better job against them than we had the first time," Stallings said. "Harper and Reed combined for 50 points against us last time. Fortunately, we did."
As a result, the Ole Miss Rebels (13-15) are likely done for the season.
At a happy postgame press conference in the bowels of the Georgia Dome, there was plenty of credit to spread around. Przybyszewski went 3-of-5 on treys to lead the team with 17 points. Matt Freije took only seven shots from the field, but still finished with 14. And Russell Lakey, who has seemed to get better with every game down the stretch, had a career high 8 assists, scored in double figures (11 points) for only the third time all season, and knocked down both of his 3-point attempts.
"[Russell] was the difference on both ends," Kevin Stallings said. "He didn't miss a shot, he had assists, steals and rebounds. His sense of urgency the last few weeks has been great. His attitude, toughness and leadership is a big part of this team."
Vanderbilt rotated ten players through most of the game, with no player getting more than 30 minutes. Eleven players registered points, and even little-used Martin Schnedlitz, inserted for the game's final 1:49, punctuated the victory with a thunderous putback dunk that brought Commodore fans to their feet.
Should the Commodores pull the upset over favored Mississippi State (No. 4 in the AP poll, No. 5 ESPN/Coaches) Friday, Vanderbilt could do something it hasn't since 1993-- advance to the SEC Tournament semifinal round, where it would face the Florida-Alabama winner. But even a loss to the mighty Bulldogs could mean a bump for Vandy's strength of schedule, which could boost Vandy's RPI and NCAA Tournament seed.
"We're feeling pretty good about [our NCAA tournament hopes]," said Corey Smith. "You can't actually get excited about it until they announce your name on TV. But we're looking forward to it."
In other first-round action Thursday, Georgia walloped Auburn, 73-59; South Carolina downed Arkansas, 91-81; and Alabama roared past Tennessee, 84-49. Friday's slate of quarterfinal games is as follows (all times Central): Kentucky vs. Georgia (noon); LSU vs. South Carolina, 2:15; Mississippi State vs. Vanderbilt, 6:30; Florida vs. Alabama, 8:45.
GAME NOTES: The Southeastern Conference honored former Commodore Perry Wallace at halftime as Vanderbilt's "SEC Legend." Wallace, the SEC's first African-American player, was one of several luminaries honored Thursday, including former NBA superstars Charles Barkley (Auburn) and Dale Ellis (Tennessee). Dan Issel (Kentucky) and Dale Brown (former LSU coach) are to be honored Friday.
Freshman sharpshooter Dan Cage appeared ready to play Thursday despite some residual pain in his ankle, but was held out as a precautionary measure.
Photos by Bryan Hufalar, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.