If any of the Commodores were taking performance-enhancers, it wasn't apparent to any of the patrons who packed America West Arena for the NCAA regional semifinals Thursday evening. After Vanderbilt sputtered through a nearly-seven-minute dry spell in the first half on its way to a 73-53 loss to UConn, it more resembled an overdose of sleeping pills.
It was the kind of performance that had some of my more cynical Commodore brothers-in-arms wondering why in the world they had taken days off from work and traveled 2,300 miles, only to discover the team hadn't fully made it.
Feisty Connecticut didn't get a lot from its All-American center Emeka Okafor, who got into some early foul trouble-- but it didn't matter. With the kind of performance the star-studded Huskies turned in Thurday, it would have taken an almost-perfect showing by the Commodores to stay with them. But Vandy shot a dreadful 33% from the floor, including 3-of-18 from Freije, and that was pretty much the ball game.
Freije, who finished with a mere 8 points, had good looks on a good majority of his shots-- three or four of them seemed to go down inside the cylinder before caroming away. It was that kind of night.
"I felt like every one of them was going to go down, or at least the majority of them, but they seemed to rattle out," he said. "We came out and had a deer-in-the-headlight look. We decided to start playing in the second half, but it was too little, too late."
This was certainly not the way the big man wanted to be remembered. Freije had exploded for 31 points in the magnificent victory over North Carolina State the previous Sunday, but outside of that game had struggled mightily in the Commodores post-season stretch drive. Throw out the Wolfpack game, and Freije averaged only 9.7 points over his last seven games.
Don't get me started on the rebounding. The Huskies seemed to snare every loose ball and punished Kevin Stallings' team on the glass, to the tune of a 44-21 rebounding edge. Sheer dominance.
And where was Mario Moore? The little man who had come up so big in the two previous NCAA wins, took only nine shots and finished with 12 points.
But give credit where credit is due. Except for a brief stretch early in the second half, Connecticut played purposeful, savvy basketball the entire night. Jim Calhoun's team looks like a team on a mission. Tell me, where is their weakness? Their backcourt play is stellar, their defense stifling. With the top big man in the country they can pound you in the paint, or they can bury you from outside.
Freshman Josh Boone deserves plenty of credit for shutting down Freije. A defense-and-rebounding specialist, Boone had pretty much done the same thing to Sean May of North Carolina back on Jan. 17, holding him to an uncharacteristic 3-of-14.
In 1988 a Vanderbilt team that included Will Perdue, Barry Goheen and Barry Booker glided ambitiously into the Sweet 16, only to be derailed by Danny Manning and a Kansas team that eventually took the national title. Don't be surprised if something similar happens this year with the Huskies.
Assuredly, it wasn't the way that seniors Freije, Hundley, and Russell Lakey wanted to go out. Here in the Valley of the Sun, the sun will undoubtedly come out tomorrow. For the moment, Vanderbilt men's basketball fans will have to console themselves with the following thoughts...
Unless you are the best team in the nation-- which Vanderbilt clearly wasn't-- eventually you are going to get your come-uppance in this tournament. The further you go, the bigger, stronger and deeper the teams get. Sixty-five teams participate in the NCAA Tournament each year, and all but one of them suffer disappointment in their final game of the season. These resilient Commodores had hoped to go at least one step further, but it wasn't to be.
"Just to get here was a great accomplishment," said Lakey. "It was a great season. I have no regrets. Playing for Vanderbilt was the best four years of my life."
Que sera, sera. The 2003-04 Commodores will go down as the team that broke a seven-year NCAA drought... that came back to beat Kentucky... that conquered Indiana and Michigan... that upset mighty Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament... that made an unbelievable comeback to beat N. C. State in Orlando... and that saved Kevin Stallings' job. For win-starved Vandy fans, it was one sweet ride back to glory.
And Freije, whose next step is the NBA, will go down as one of the greatest players in Vanderbilt history. Sadly, this game simply wasn't his best "specimen" (sorry, Matt).