Behind a spectacular performance from the rejuvenated Mario Moore, Vanderbilt clawed its way back to .500 in the Southeastern Conference with a 79-65 victory over Arkansas at Memorial Gym. Yes, boys and girls, the Commodores (16-10, 6-6) are allowed to talk ‘bubble' when it comes to the NCAA Tournament now that they are back to sea level in the league.
"We know it is there," Moore said of the postseason. "But we have Florida on our mind."
On Saturday, Arkansas was clearly the focus as the Dores put together one of their best games of the season. Freshman Shan Foster tallied a season-high 25 points, but the box score belonged to Moore. The point guard had 20 points (including 10-for-10 at the foul line), 13 assists and one turnover. The 13 assists was one shy of Billy McCaffrey's school-record 14-assist effort the night the Dores beat No. 1 Kentucky in 1993.
"Moore (right by AP's Neil Brake) was just outstanding," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath, whose team may have fallen out of the NCAA picture with a 17-9, 5-8 record. "I know he has been up and down, but tonight he was the best player on the court."
Stallings said Foster and Moore had put together two strong days of practice and he anticipated a strong effort from both players.
"Mario was the best he's been in four or five weeks (at practice Friday)," Stallings said. "Shan has absolutely been on fire (the last two days of practice). It is like he's throwing flames inside a rim in practice. It has really been incredible. Both of those guys have practiced well the last two days."
Arkansas entered the game with the league's top three-point defense, while Vanderbilt was second in three-point field goal percentage. Vanderbilt won that battle, connecting on 12 of 27, including 6 of 10 in the second half. Foster had five threes to lead the way.
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The Dores also were the aggressor for most of the night, breaking the Arkansas press and attacking on defense Vanderbilt forced 15 turnovers (while committing 11 itself) and outrebounded the Hogs 28-24.
"We played with a lot of passion and energy, which we needed to," Stallings said. "And we did a nice job on the boards."
Vanderbilt held a small lead for most of the game but finally pulled away thanks, in part, to a questionable intentional foul call on Arkansas' Rashard Sullivan. Moore said after the game he did not think the call was worthy of an intentional foul. Moore hit his two free throws, then Foster drained a three-pointer for a five-point possession that stretched a 55-51 lead to 60-51.
"As a team, you want to find a way to push through that," Heath said. "The ref had it from a different angle and I have to respect his call."
From there, it was all Commodores, as Dawid Przybyszewski nailed two three-pointers and Foster broke free for some open court layups.
The lead topped out at 74-58 and the only thing left was the standing ovation for Moore and Foster as they exited with 48 ticks left.
"When (Moore) is as enthusiastic as he was tonight, the sky's the limit for us," Foster said.
The sky, or at least the NCAA Tournament.
Bill Trocchi is the interactive editor for Athlon Sports.
Vanderbilt's Mario Moore, left, and Shan Foster celebrate Vanderbilt's 79-65 win over Arkansas in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005. (AP Photo/Neil Brake)