Mario Moore exploded for a career high 26 points, 18 in the second half, and Vanderbilt fought to a 71-58 win over Western Michigan Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the TD Waterhouse Centre. With the win, the sixth-seeded Commodores earned a Sunday afternoon second-round matchup with third-seeded North Carolina State (21-9), which advanced with a 61-52 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.
The win was Vanderbilt's (22-9) first in the NCAA Tournament since the Sweet 16 team of 1993.
Moore hit six 3-point shots, and the Commodores shot 54 percent from the floor, 55 percent from 3-point range.
"I was just trying to get open touches," said Moore. "I wouldn't say that I was demanding the basketball. We just ran the offense and luckily I was able to get the ball in a place to score."
All week, the talk had been about the fact that Vanderbilt had been a one-point underdog despite being seeded higher. A remark by the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan that Vanderbilt was seemingly "too white" to win seemed to only add fuel to the fire.
Head coach Kevin Stallings seemed to turn all the disrespect around and use it to motivate his Commodores.
"It was almost as if people thought we got sent an invitation to this tournament by mistake," said Stallings. "It was like they stuck our name up on the board and something happened that was wrong. We've got a pretty good team."
"He was shooting them out there like he was Larry Bird," said WMU guard Brian Snider.
Both teams came out shooting well from the floor. Vanderbilt connected on five of its first eight shots, including four 3-pointers, while Mike Williams scored 12 of the Broncos' first 16 points. The Commodores maintained the lead for the game's first 12 minutes, and twice took a lead of six points.
But the Commodores and Williams both soon cooled off. Western Michigan took its first lead at 24-23, and held that lead for the rest of the first half as Vandy got sloppy with 11 first-half turnovers. Williams finished the first half with 16 points.
"They made adjustments on the way they were playing me, and it worked," said Williams.
Vanderbilt took the lead back for good at 49-47 on a 3-point shot by Dan Cage with 11 minutes left, but Western Michigan kept the game close until the 5-minute mark.
The Commodores finally got some breathing room when Moore and Freije hit back-to-back treys to boost Vandy's lead to a 61-53. An improbable two-point baseline bank shot by Moore with 1:50 to play stretched Vandy's advantage to 65-55.
"As long as it's a one-possession game, both teams are in there, sort of playing in a comfort zone," Stallings explained. "But all of a sudden, when you take it to two or three possessions, now there's additional pressure on the team that's behind.
"Shooting gets harder, passing gets harder when that happens. Fortunately, we made plays before they did. Then once we made a few plays, we really got going."
Vanderbilt was victorious despite shooting an atrocious 8-of-18 from the free throw line and committing 16 turnovers. But the Commodores held the Broncos shot 35 percent shooting in the second half.
"We had a heck of a year and a heck of an effort," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said. "But Vanderbilt, quite simply, was the better team."
Sunday's Vanderbilt-North Carolina State matchup should begin about 1:45 p.m. CT. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 next week in Phoenix, Ariz.
"Here we are, still standing," said Stallings. "We'll have a about 36 hours before we lace them back up and try to do it again on Sunday."