Sweet 16 turns sour: Huskies best Vandy, 73-53

PHOENIX, Ariz.-- Vanderbilt's giddy joyride through the NCAA Tournament hit a brick wall at America West Arena Thursday. Second-seeded Connecticut roared to a 22-point lead in the first half and knocked the sixth-seeded Commodores out of the Sweet 16 with a 73-53 victory. The Huskies (30-6) advanced to play Alabama in the Elite Eight, while Vanderbilt's (23-10) remarkable turnaround season came to an end.

PHOENIX, Ariz.-- Vanderbilt's giddy joyride through the NCAA Tournament hit a brick wall at America West Arena Thursday. Second-seeded Connecticut roared to a 22-point lead in the first half and knocked the sixth-seeded Commodores out of the Sweet 16 with a 73-53 victory. The Huskies (30-6) advanced to play Alabama in the Elite Eight, while Vanderbilt's (23-10) remarkable turnaround season came to an end.

Four Huskies scored in double figures, led by Ben Gordon's 20 points. Rashad Anderson added 15 points; Taliek Brown added 12, while Big East Player of the Year Emeka Okafor had 12 points and 11 rebounds.

In what turned out to be his final game as a Commodore, Vandy's All-SEC leader Matt Freije suffered through a horrendous 3-of-18 shooting night and finished with 8 points.

"I felt the majority of shots, they would go down, but they seemed to rattle out," Freije said. "It was a little of both, a bad shot and their defense. There were a couple of times when I was worrying about getting it blocked.

"Those kinds of games are going to happen. Unfortunately for me, it had to be in my last game."

Mario Moore and Corey Smith led the team with 12 points each.

The Huskies looked every bit the part of a Final Four team in running ahead to a 45-27 halftime advantage. The Commodores cobbled together an 18-7 run to pull within seven at 52-45 early in the second half, but quickly lapsed into a five-minute cold stretch, allowing UConn to score 8 unanswered points and eventually stretch its lead back out to 20.

The Huskies did it from inside as well as outside, shooting 53% from the field, out-rebounding the Commodores by a decisive 44-21, and outscoring Vandy 19-2 on second-chance points.

"We got off to a poor start," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "We talked about getting off to a good start and controlling the pace of the game. Getting off to a poor start, we were a lot more subjected to the pace they wanted.

"We showed some fight and grit in the second half by making a game out of it. But when you get down big to a team as good as Connecticut, you'll have a hard time coming back."

Vanderbilt suffered through a miserable 35% shooting night. The Commodores struggled through an almost seven-minute stretch in the first half without a field goal, in which nine shots were missed-- only to endure a similar five-minute cold spell in the second half.

"I think their athleticism and strength down low frustrated [Freije]," Stallings said. "I just told him to take his shots, to be aggressive. He was never able to get into a rhythm."

"[Connecticut] got the ball out in transition, and they were able to knock down some shots," Mario Moore said in the postgame interviews. "At the end of the day, when you don't rebound and when you don't get back in transition, you're going to lose."

Kevin Stallings and the Vanderbilt bench react as they watch the end of the second half, Thursday, March 25, 2004. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Though Vandy's Sweet 16 appearance was ultimately disappointing, the team's turnaround from 11-18 in the 2002-03 season, to 23-10 this season, was one of the nation's biggest. Vanderbilt's NCAA Tournament appearance was its first in seven years, and its Sweet 16 appearance was the school's first in 11 years.

Thursday's game was the final appearance for seniors Matt Freije, Russell Lakey and Scott Hundley. Freije finished his career as Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer with 1,891 points.

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