'Comeback against Wolfpack' never to be forgotten

For a couple more days at least, fans can enjoy sweet dreams about last year's marvels at the TD Waterhouse Centre. On one unforgettable March afternoon, in the city where fairy tales do come true... the Commodores of 2004 advanced to the Sweet 16 and brought every fan's dream to a glorious fruition.

With the start of basketball season mere days away, I had to see it again. I had to pull out my DVD from last March of the Vanderbilt men's amazing win over North Carolina State in the NCAA round of 32. I had to watch it again, just to remind myself it really happened.

It's kinda funny. Last year's Commodores had plenty of memorable wins. The upsets of Indiana and Michigan. The comeback win over Kentucky, and the gutsy win over Tennessee. The stupendous upset of Mississippi State in Atlanta in the SEC Tournament.

But ten years from now, the one they'll still be talking about is the "Comeback against the Wolfpack" (just the same we as all remember "The Buzzer-beater that Sank Pitt," Barry Goheen's immortal shot in the NCAA's in 1988). Even eight months later, it still gives me chills.

When Julius Hodge made a putback with just under three minutes to play to put N.C. State up 69-59, millions around the country doubtless began switching channels and checking the scores in other games. The dream was over, we all thought. Kevin Stallings' Commodores had put together an amazing post-season run, but against the second-best team in the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference, a 10-point lead would be too much to overcome.

But no! What happened in the final 2:44 of that game is etched forever in the memory of us diehards. Seconds later Hodge would commit his fifth foul, against Matt Freije of all people, who happened to be putting up a 3-point shot. With 2:44 left to play Hodge was gone, and after Freije hit all three free throws, Vandy still had a glimmer of hope.

Next it was a Freije 3-pointer... the steal by Scott Hundley, and the intentional foul that gave Corey Smith two shots... Mario Moore's 3-pointer from the next zip code... Freije's jumper from the baseline... and the dagger, Moore's backdoor pass to Smith that resulted in a three-point play...

"Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a white-knuckler here in Orlando..."

The images come flooding back. Corey Smith pumps his fists to the black-and-gold section... Hodge buries his bald head in his hands... Freije flings the ball 100 feet in the air as time expires, and is tackled by Martin Schnedlitz... the cardiac Commodores had shed their "too white" label (thank you, Bob Ryan) and were on their way to Phoenix.

Those are the things the fans will always remember. For Jason Holwerda, however, the images are slightly different.

"The things I remember about it are moreso the emotions from players," Holwerda said.

"I see Corey's pumping his fist after hitting that shot. I see Martin Schnedlitz on the bench going crazy. I see Freije with tears of joy, just crying like a little baby.

"I see my teammates and how they reacted. I think that's more valuable than any shot that we made or any defensive stop we made."

In a season filled with extraordinary wins, Vanderbilt's 23rd win of the season was by far the biggest stunner. Kevin Stallings said recently that even six months later, Vanderbilt fans take him aside and tell him what they were doing when they witnessed the 'Dores knock off the 'Pack.

"We hear it from fans all the time," Stallings said. "I think it was the nature of the win, the way it occurred, being 10 down with 2:44 to play, and coming back to win in regulation. It's just one of those wins that people tend to talk about. It happened to be on a pretty grand stage.

"But you're right. 'I was here watching it with him,' or 'I was in Chicago watching it in a sports bar, and talked them into turning the Illinois game off and the Vanderbilt game on.' You hear that stuff a lot. That's nice, because people identify that with us."

The win brought needed legitimacy to a program that had not even made it to the tournament in seven long years. In recruiting, Stallings said it also allowed him to go after some prospects that ordinarily might never have given Vanderbilt a second glance.

"I just think what happens is, you have an opportunity to get involved with a different level of players," he said. "Now, whether you come up with those players in any given year is another story. It just opens the door for us recruiting-wise that had not previously been open."

Truth be told, it's probably that signature win in Orlando that has fans so pumped for the 2004-05 season. Tickets at Memorial are going to be much harder to come by this year than last, and the high expectations have fans lusting for another trip to the Dance.

Can this team, which can no longer ride on the shoulders of Freije, get there? It all remains to be seen. The journey starts this Friday vs. Toledo.

For a couple more days, however, fans can enjoy sweet dreams about last year's marvels at the TD Waterhouse Centre. (Never mind that Vanderbilt would be waxed in Phoenix by the eventual national champion Huskies.) On one unforgettable March afternoon, in the city where fairy tales do come true... the Commodores of 2004 brought every fan's dream to a glorious fruition.


Remembering the win: Click here to re-read Charles Minnix's account of last March's unforgettable NCAA Tournament win.

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