The Commodores came to Atlanta needing to win two or perhaps three games in order to establish their NCAA credibility-- but they never got off of square one. An aroused Auburn squad roared out to a 21-point lead in the second half and held on to defeat Vandy 77-73 in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Auburn (15-16) advanced to meet LSU, the second-seeded team from the West, in a 9:45 pm ET quarterfinal Friday. For Vanderbilt (18-13), it was a bitter defeat that left coaches and players in stunned silence in the locker room afterwards.
Against a team it had handled on the road with relative ease four weeks earlier, in the glare of the post-season spotlight, the much-taller and deeper Commodores laid a big, black and gold egg. The grim faces afterwards told the story: Vandy's hopes for a much-coveted NCAA bid, admittedly slim before Thursday, are now pretty much out the window.
"I'm not in any mood to make a case [to the NCAA selection committee] right now," said Kevin Stallings at the post-game press conference, quickly adding, "I don't think there's much of a case to be made. I doubt that there is."
"It's just very disappointing, when you knew what was ahead," said Mario Moore. "Sometimes that can be a distraction. I don't want to say that was a distraction, but it just seemed like our focus wasn't out there tonight."
Fouled quickly, Auburn's Ian Young hit one of two free throws, making it a two-possession game. A Moore lay-up attempt spun around the rim and fell out on Vandy's last possession, and an Alex Gordon jumper failed to beat the buzzer. The Tigers' upset was complete, and Vandy, the third seed in the East, was headed back to Nashville.
"We kept searching for answers, and found a few, but we didn't find enough," said Stallings.
How was Auburn, the sixth seed from the West-- a team with only four regular-season SEC wins-- a team with no player taller than 6-foot-6-- able to put such a whipping on bigger, deeper Vanderbilt? Through most of the first half Auburn kept the game close with hot outside shooting from its virtual four-guard lineup. The score was knotted at 33-33 with two minutes left in the half, but the Tigers gained a burst of momentum just before the half ended.
After Toney Douglas and Frank Tolbert connected on outside shots, Ian Young stuffed a Mario Moore lay-up on one end of the floor, and Nathan Watson sprinted to the other end of the court for a snowbird just as the buzzer sounded. The seven-point run gave Auburn a 40-33 halftime lead.
It would carry over into the second half, as Jeff Lebo's team repeatedly broke down Vanderbilt's defense with quick cuts for easy baskets in the lane (20 of Auburn's 37 second-half points would come from the paint). Meanwhile the Commodores endured one of their inexplicable arid stretches, scoring only two points in the first five minutes of the second half.
The lead reached 63-42, before Vanderbilt answered the bell with a 14-0 run to cut it back to 63-56. In finally whittling the lead to 76-73, the Commodores made some big defensive plays, and Foster would contribute five more points in a row. But the Commodores missed several open looks from 3-point range, missed some free throws, and had several easy baskets rim out.
Douglas, a member of the All-SEC freshman team, led the Tigers with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Ian Young (14 points), Frank Tolbert (14) and Quinnel Brown (13) all hit double figures. It was Auburn's second breakthrough win in a row, as the Tigers had closed the regular season with a stirring win over Arkansas.
Provided Vanderbilt doesn't hear its name called on Selection Sunday, an invitation to the National Invitational Tournament should be forthcoming. The Commodores could be playing as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday, but that thought provided little solace to the players Thursday night.
"We're lower than sad," said senior Corey Smith, one of three seniors who will likely miss out on one final chance to play in the big show. "We're mad, upset, and all that other stuff. But I think we'll bounce back and get ready for whatever post-season play we have in front of us."
In other SEC Tournament action Thursday, Ole Miss edged South Carolina 53-52; Mississippi State ousted Georgia, 76-65; and Tennessee smacked Arkansas, 65-46. Friday's slate of games is now as follows: