Before a packed Georgia Dome crowd, Vanderbilt shook up the college basketball world by knocking off No. 4 Mississippi State 74-70 in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Commodores (21-8) now advance to face Florida Saturday at 2:15 p.m. CT (Jefferson-Pilot TV; 650 WSM-FM).
The conference had hoped and prayed for a meeting in the finals between the Bulldogs (25-3) and Kentucky, the top two seeds in the tournament-- but it won't happen now. Kentucky had done its part earlier in the day, and Mississippi State nearly did in Vanderbilt with a Lawrence Roberts shot at the buzzer at the end of regulation. But the Commodores got it done in overtime with solid defense and free throw shooting.
On a night when leading scorers Matt Freije and Dawid Przybyszewski struggled from the field, a host of Commodores stepped up to take the slack. Mario Moore led five players in double figures with 17 points, and fellow Nashvillian Julian Terrell added 16 points and 7 boards. Corey Smith had a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds); Freije and Russell Lakey had 13 points each.
The Commodores came out on top despite shooting only 37 percent from the floor and going 14-for-25 from the line.
"I thought we'd need to shoot well to win, and I thought Dawid would need to make some baskets," said Coach Kevin Stallings. "I didn't realize that Julian was going to play his best game of the season. He did, and we didn't need Dawid's baskets tonight."
Stallings had emphasized rebounding in his game plan, and his Commodores won the rebounding war against the more athletic Bulldogs, 38-34.
"Vanderbilt played tougher and with more energy than we did," said State's Branden Vincent. "They crashed the boards harder than we did."
Mississippi State led through most of the first half and held the edge at halftime, 34-28. Vandy fell behind 41-30 early in the second half, but roared back with a 15-3 run to take a brief 45-44 lead.
The two teams battled closely through the rest of regulation. Mario Moore's three with one minute left gave Vandy a 64-63 lead-- but SEC Player of the Year Lawrence Roberts hit two foul shots to put the Bulldogs back on top. Matt Freije hit one of two free throws to tie the game at 65 with 0:38 left. A Roberts outside shot at the buzzer bounced high off the rim to send the game into overtime.
After three lead changes in overtime, Julian Terrell hit two free throws to put Vandy up 69-68. With Vandy up 71-70, State's Timmy Bowers made a steal, but Moore stole a long downcourt pass and was fouled by Bowers. He sank one of two free throws.
"Coach had been telling us all night long to get back on transition," Moore said. "When we turned the ball over, I had to get back as fast as I could. They threw it to me, and we got another possession."
Mississippi State muffed its next offensive possession when Branden Vincent lost the ball out of bounds, and Corey Smith knocked down two free throws for the game's final points. The Bulldogs missed on two shots in the game's final seconds.
"This game shows a lot about our team," said Freije. "It shows that we are a team. I don't have to play great for us to win.
"We just beat one of the top teams in the nation. They were vying for a number one seed. I shot 5-of-16 and we still won! It just shows how much of a team we really are."
Mississippi State, which defeated Vanderbilt by three points at Memorial Gym on Feb. 28, now returns home to Starkville to await Sunday's NCAA announcement. With the early exit also probably went the chance for a No. 1 regional seed, for which the Bulldogs had held earnest hopes.
Should the Commodores advance to the finals on Sunday, it will mark the first time since the SEC Tournament was reinstated in 1979 that Vandy has appeared in a final. Vanderbilt's only appearance in the SEC Tournament championship game came in 1951, which is also the only time the Commodores have won an SEC Tournament championship.
In other SEC Tournament action Friday, Kentucky pulled away from Georgia late to win, 69-60; South Carolina blasted LSU, 85-64; and Lee Humphrey's buzzer-beater gave Florida a 75-73 overtime win over Alabama in a late-night thriller.
Kentucky (24-4) faces South Carolina (23-9) Saturday at noon in the first semifinal game, while Vanderbilt (21-8) meets Florida at 2:15 pm. Both games will be televised regionally by Jefferson-Pilot.
Sunday's championship game tips off at noon CT, and is scheduled for national television on CBS.
Vanderbilt snapped a four-game losing streak to Mississippi State since beating the Bulldogs 76-53 in the 2000 SEC Tournament in Kevin Stallings' first season at Vanderbilt.
Photo by Bryan Hufalar, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.