Mark this date down for historical purposes-- January 26, 2002. It was the day the magic returned to Memorial Gym.
For a few years there, the magic seemed to have left us, vanished. But on this remarkable afternoon... with 13,324 patrons gathered to watch Vandy take on 15th-ranked Georgia, a team that had previously handled Vandy easily in Athens... with a Jefferson-Pilot TV crew in town capturing the action...
Great shades of Roy Skinner! It was just like old times. An hysterical home crowd rushed the court in the afterglow of a remarkable victory. This scrappy bunch of Commodores, whom we all knew were capable of having a day hitting something like 15 3-pointers, finally did it. And holy smokes, twice, with the game tied in the final minute, they executed two big offensive plays at the end to take 2-point leads.
And then they watched as Chris Daniels' 3-pointer-- which would have won the game for the Bulldogs-- bounced off the backboard, off the rim, off the backboard again, off the rim again-- and harmlessly to one side as the buzzer sounded.
Just like Commodore teams of old, this 2001-02 edition of Commodores rose up and slayed the beastly Bulldogs in one of the most thrilling victories in Memorial Gym's 50-year history. It improved the Commodores' record to 13-6, 3-3 in the SEC, and put Vandy just a game back of the SEC East leaders in the loss column.
"They beat us straight up," said a bewildered, frustrated Georgia coach Jim Harrick, whose Dawgs came in a heavy favorite. "We had everybody healthy. For most of the game, we played good defense. They just beat us, no ifs, ands or buts."
For 50 seasons now, the stately old building has stood. Decade after decade, the crowds have filed in on winter nights to watch the peculiar edifice cast its odd spell on visiting teams. Listening to the cheers ring off the old cinder-block walls, feeling the electricity, we fans at times have been thoroughly convinced of the illusion that there's no team Vandy couldn't vanquish in this building.
The Bulldogs, certainly more athletic and physical than Vanderbilt, jumped out to a 9-point first-half lead. But the Commodores clawed back into the game behind an astonishing display of 3-point shooting, paced by Brendan Plavich's 6-of-9 from behind the arc. Sam Howard hit four of his nine 3-point attempts; Chuck Moore hit three, and even Corey Smith and David Przybyszewski got into the act with one 3 apiece.
Vandy came into the game leading the SEC at 9.6 treys per game. Today they made 15, just one short of the gym record.
Early in the second half the Commodores took advantage of a rare Georgia dry spell, and after a Brian Thornton 3-point play the Commodores had come from 9 down to take a 10-point lead at 63-53. Thornton, who had sat out most of the earlier game in Athens due to foul trouble, wound up with 12 points and 7 rebounds, most of them down the stretch.
Georgia's exceptional guard Jarvis Hayes-- who I think is the SEC's most valuable player at this early date-- shot the Bulldogs back into an 82-82 tie with 1:10 left. Kevin Stallings called time out. It was the last time the clock would stop. The last frantic 70 seconds-- now frozen in the minds of all who were there-- would be played without interruption.
Vandy inbounded the ball. Senior Chuck Moore-- what a guy to have on your team when the game's on the line-- handled the ball outside, and suddenly did a dribble-drive around Hayes and put up a floater from mid-lane that danced around before going in with 0:48 left. Hayes-- who else?-- answered with a short jumper to tie the score at 0:35.
Vandy's ball. Shot clock now off. Moore dribbles the clock down to 0:12 out front, then goes to work.
Careful students of the game, please observe that all five Commodores touched the ball on the final possession. Moore to Plavich, to Freije on the left wing. Freije... to freshman Brian Thornton at the top of the key... who looked to his left to find another freshman, Jason Holwerda, slashing toward the basket on a back door cutter. Thornton makes a perfect pass, freshman to freshman, and Holwerda lays it in high over Chris Daniels with 0:04.9 left...
Just the way it was drawn up, I'm sure.
But as Paul Eells used to say in days of yore... hold on to your hats. The inbounds goes to Georgia's nimble big man Chris Daniels, who dribbles all the way to the top of the arc, puts up a shot... that goes off the glass, off the iron, off the glass, off the iron...
Ba da boom, ba da bing, Commodores win.
After that it got crazy. I mean really crazy. The last time I remember a celebration like this was the Tennessee win two years ago. The last time before that... the mind grows fuzzy.
All I'm really sure about is that after an extraordinary afternoon of basketball... for a few hours, this old gym was sheer college basketball heaven on earth, just like it used to be.
Watch out, SEC. The old Memorial mystique is alive and well. It's come back, hopefully to stay for a while.