Time was, the few Vanderbilt fans visiting the SEC Tournament could pretty much leave the car running with the keys in the ignition. But after Friday the rowdy black and gold contingent, spread into two sections in the bottom of the cavernous Georgia Dome, will get to stay at least one more day to see their beloved Commodores play in the semifinals against Florida.
Kevin Stallings stopped short of calling this his biggest win ever-- but don't you believe it for a second. This was not only his biggest win, it was Vanderbilt's most memorable and satisfying win in the postseason since-- well, at least since Vandy beat Pitt in 1988.
Mighty Mississippi State, which had plowed through the regular season 25-2 and unbeaten on the road, had come to Atlanta eager to flex its estimable muscle and perhaps secure one of four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Friday's game with Vanderbilt was billed as a prime-time matchup featuring the top two players in the conference-- State's Lawrence Roberts and Vandy's Matt Freije.
And State seemed to have most of the crowd, too. It's hard to understand how a fan base from Starkville could be decidedly bigger and louder than a crowd from Nashville-- but they were.
Both of the SEC Player of the Year candidates struggled. Roberts was his usual remarkable self underneath, but finished with only 13 points. Freije never really found his shot and finished only 5-of-16 from the floor. And David Przybyszewski, whose 3-point shooting had been key in Vandy's win over Ole Miss the night before, scored zero points against the Bulldogs.
But call it the "Revenge of the Nerds"-- or maybe the "Revenge of the Grizzlies"-- as a number of other Commodores stepped up in helping Vanderbilt avenge a 72-69 loss in Memorial Gym in the regular season.
Corey Smith had 12 points, six of them on two huge 3-pointers, to go with ten rebounds, six off the offensive glass. Fearless Mario Moore led the team with 17 points, and Li'l Mo pulled down six boards himself.
Lakey played like a man possessed. He has now made four 3-pointers in two days (after making six total in the regular season), and contributed with 7 assists and 3 steals. His dribble penetration was what made the Vanderbilt offense click.
But it was Julian Terrell who came off the bench to play his biggest game of the year, on both ends of the floor. Against the Bulldog zone, the Commodores found the big Nashvillian open time and again for 3-to-5-footers, which he was able to knock down over the outstretched arms of Roberts and man-mountain Wesley Morgan.
Terrell had been struggling all season from the foul line-- as have all the Commodores as a team recently-- but converted 6-of-10 Friday, including two big ones in overtime that gave Vanderbilt the lead for good.
Miraculous-- that's just about the only word for a game in which Vanderbilt shot just 37 percent against a ranked team, missed 11 free throws, and still found a way to win. Miraculous indeed-- but the Commodores will take it and run with it. Just two short nights ago, there were still doubters regarding Vandy's NCAA-worthiness; today, there are none.
I know I shouldn't look ahead (forgive me, Coach), but if Vanderbilt can get past a Florida team which also had an emotional victory Friday evening-- and with which Vandy split in the regular season-- it would face either Kentucky or South Carolina. Neither would be a picnic, but neither would be impossible.
Kentucky's enormous fan base, as usual, has turned the Georgia Dome into Rupp Arena South, and would serve as a formidable collective sixth man in a Vandy-Kentucky final. But the Commodores edged out UK in the two teams' last meeting, and would doubtless come in confident of their ability to do so again.
South Carolina? The Gamecocks swept Vandy in the regular season, and Dave Odom has been a big thorn in Kevin Stallings' side since he arrived in Columbia. But the Gamecocks are more vulnerable without Rolando Howell, and like Vanderbilt, they would be playing their fourth game in four days. The Commodores would have the depth advantage.
The worst that could happen at this point? Vandy goes home Saturday and waits to find out where the selection committee has seeded it-- not too shabby, I'd say.
Whatever happens Saturday and Sunday, the Commodores will leave Atlanta knowing that they have done something extraordinary. One by one, Vanderbilt has overcome hurdles this year-- beating Big Ten teams, beating Kentucky, winning on the road, winning on the road in the SEC.
Winning a big game in the postseason was the last demon to be exorcised. If Stallings' program continues to advance as Commodore fans hope and pray it will, Friday's win over Mississippi State may be fondly recalled in years to come as the statement win that put Vanderbilt back on the college basketball map.
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