Flashback: VU's march to 1990 NIT championship

Vanderbilt opens play in the National Invitational Tournament Wednesday, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the 1990 Commodores which won it all. In his weekly flashback, VandyMania historian <B>Howell Peiser</b> recalls Vandy's amazing run to the NIT title game at Madison Square Garden in 1990.

The National Invitational Tournament is the 21st century stepchild to the NCAA championship. For many years, the NIT was the equal to the NCAA playoffs and some years maybe even the superior tournament. For a few years, teams played in both tournaments. In 1950, City College of New York won both the NCAA and NIT tournaments, defeating Bradley in each final.

That year, a damaging point-shaving gambling scandal took place in college basketball. Many of the alleged acts of criminal behavior took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. MSG not only hosted the entire NIT in those days, but many of those years saw the arena also host the NCAA East Regionals (including the national semi-finals).

After the scandal, the SEC forbade its members from playing in the NIT from 1952 through 1968. Tennessee and Florida both accepted invitations in 1969, when the ban was lifted. Vanderbilt did not participate in the NIT until 1983, beating East Tennessee State and losing to Wake Forest, with both games at Memorial Gym. The Commodores' second appearance was in 1987. This time they played three home games; Vandy beat Jacksonville and Florida State before losing to eventual champion Southern Miss.

In 1990 the Commodores returned to the NIT for a third time in eight seasons. This time would be different.

Cast of characters

Eddie Fogler had replaced C.M. Newton as Vanderbilt head coach for 1989-90. With the former Wichita State coach came the North Carolina system. That included the passing game, the T-game, the two-digit numbered defenses (the first digit signified man-to-man, run and jump, trap, or zone, while the second digit told the players where to begin their assignment; e.g., '22' was half-court man-to-man), and the three-lane fast break.

Fogler relied on eight players for most of the minutes played. Post players Eric Reid, Steve Grant, Dan Hall, and Todd Milholland shared the 80 post minutes per game. The perimeter saw Kevin Anglin, Morgan Wheat, Charles Mayes, Scott Draud, and Derrick Wilcox divide the remaining 120 minutes.

After a 3-0 start in SEC play, the bottom fell out. Vandy lost all its close games, including seven in a row to fall to 12-12 overall. After Fogler inserted Anglin into the starting lineup, the Commodores rebounded to win two of their last three regular season games, including a resounding slaughter over Tennessee on senior night for Reid, Wilcox, and Alberto Ballestra.

Vandy lost the services of the scrappy Hall prior to the start of the SEC Tournament. Still, it was a memorable SEC tournament. As the No. 8 seed, the Commodores eliminated SEC champion and No. 1-seeded Georgia in the quarterfinals. At 16-14, Vanderbilt accepted an NIT bid.

Game one: Taming the Bulldogs

Louisiana Tech (20-7) came to Memorial Gym feeling slighted, having been omitted from the field of 64. Tech's star was 6-7, 240-pound Anthony "The Bear" Dade, a banger who could power his way around the hoop. 6-2 guard Reggie Gibbs was Tech's principle perimeter weapon.

Coach Fogler relied on his late-season starting lineup: Wilcox, Draud, and Anglin formed a three-guard tandem with Reid and Grant up front. Mayes, Milholland, and Wheat were the main reserves.

Tech opened up hot from both inside and the outside, while Vandy was ice cold. The rim was unkind to the Commodores. Grant and Reid both excelled defensively early to keep Dade from controlling the inside. After facing Shaquille O'Neal and Stanley Roberts of LSU twice, Dade was a piece of cake; but it was Gibbs who nearly put the dagger into the Goldmen. He hit four quick three-pointers, as the Bulldogs grabbed a double-digit lead.

Tech led 40-27 at halftime. After resting for 15 minutes, Tech's starters opened the final half on another run. The 13-point lead increased to 17 points at 60-43 with just seven-and-a-half minutes to go. Another couple of minutes, and Tech coach Jerry Loyd could begin to empty his bench.

Loyd never got that opportunity. Facing first-round elimination, the Commodores self-ignited like a piece of paper undergoing spontaneous combustion. Reid and Grant, who both missed crip shots in the first half, started hitting every shot they attempted. The Bulldog post defenders hit the wall, and the better-conditioned Commodores exploited them time and time again. The perimeter pressure began to force Tech into numerous turnovers. Reid, Grant, and Anglin took command of the boards. Six minutes later, Reid called for the ball in the low post, caught it, wheeled, and connected on a three-footer to tie the game at 78. After two made Tech free throws, Vandy brought the ball down the floor with 0:30 to go. As 6,700 screaming Commodore fans rose to their feet, Vandy ran its 3-out, 2-in passing game. Draud came off a screen and received a pass with less than 15 seconds to go. He had a momentary opening, and that was all he needed. He fired from 14 feet, and the ball made some string music to tie the game at 80. After one quick defensive stop, the fans got to see five bonus minutes.

Draud picked up where he left off in regulation. He came off a down-screen and fired a three-pointer from the side. Swish! Vandy led by three, and it would hold onto that lead for the duration. Anglin, who only scored one free throw in regulation time, added two big buckets. His pin-point passes inside led to Reid and Grant getting open shots. The Commodores scored 18 points in the five-minute period and won 98-90. Draud's 22 points led the team, with four other Commodores in double figures.

Game two: Take that, Vols!

The NIT came up with true gold in the second round. Vandy hosted Tennessee (16-13) in an ESPN game. The Vols had just won at Memphis State, and their players were perturbed about being forced to play another road game. 15,000+ fans, about 3,000 cheering for the Vols, made this the best draw of the entire NIT.

In the regular season the teams had split. Like Fogler, Tennessee coach Wade Houston was in his initial season at UT. His son Allan was just a freshman, but he already was the near equal of LSU's Chris Jackson. Post player Ian Lockhart and perimeter player Greg Bell complemented the inside-outside play of the star.

Vanderbilt had trouble starting its offense against UT's 2-2-1 press, and soon found itself trailing once again. Tennessee canned six of its first seven shot attempts and quickly went up by eight points. The Vols then spent the next ten minutes building the lead. Houston called off the press once the Vols' lead reached double figures, but Vanderbilt still had trouble scoring consistently. The Tennessee lead hit 15 points and then 17 late in the half. When the horn blew, Tennessee led 47-31.

Fogler made some defensive adjustments during halftime in an attempt to keep Houston from penetrating to the low post. Lockhart had also hurt Vandy with several short bank shots. Fogler told his squad that with the fast tempo of the game, a 17-point deficit could be made up quickly, but once they caught up, they would have to sustain the effort.

The talk was quite prophetic. On the first possession of the second half, Grant ran off an inside screen and slammed home a dunk. The crowd immediately sprang to life, and the famous "sixth man" of Memorial pumped energy in the five black and gold players on the floor. Tennessee went three minutes without a score, and the Commodores cut the lead to 47-38. Wilcox, running the offense to perfection, hit a couple of three-pointers and dished out a couple assists, as the Commodores further reduced the lead. With 12:30 to go, Milholland fired from long range for three, and Vanderbilt had its first lead since 2-0 at 52-51. Lockhart quickly picked up his third and fourth fouls, and backup center Carlos Groves also picked up his fourth foul, allowing Milholland to roam his favorite shooting areas with little interference. When left open, his outside shot was as accurate as Draud's or Wilcox's.

The lead continued to change hands. With about two and a half minutes to go, Wilcox hit a short jumper to put Vandy up for good at 78-77. Wilcox followed that up with a three-pointer, and Tennessee was cooked. A few foul shots later, Vandy won 89-85 to advance to the quarterfinals. Tennesse's big three had combined for 73 points (Houston 31, Lockhart 23, and Bell 19). Wilcox led Vandy by scoring a career-high 26, while dishing out six assists. Milholland had his best game in weeks, scoring 18 points and gathering seven rebounds.

Game three: Privateers publicly embarrassed

The sold out crowd guaranteed Vanderbilt would host the third round as well. The opponent chosen to come to Nashville was New Orleans (21-10), which had just ventured to Starkville and eliminated Mississippi State.

Both teams had one day to prepare for this game. The Privateers, coached by future Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd, started 6-11 Ervin Johnson at center, who blocked more shots than the entire Commodore team. 6-3 swingman Toney Harris led UNO with a 20+ points average. The Privateers were exceptionally quick and played tenacious man-to-man defense.

Vandy didn't come out of the gate scoring points with ease, but the Commodore defensive effort was top-drawer. In the early going, both teams' defenses controlled the game. Vanderbilt took an early lead thanks to Floyd, who disagreed with two early calls and picked up technical fouls each time. UNO knotted the score at 13-13 with exactly ten minutes showing on the first half clock. The first spurt of the game belonged to the home squad; a 10-1 run made the score 23-14. The Commodores maintained that nine-point lead for the rest of the half, taking a 37-28 lead at the break.

The star of the second half was Eric Reid. He tipped in a missed shot, and after a UNO traveling violation hit a short jumper to put Vandy up by 13. Just as they had done in the previous two NIT games, Vandy caught fire in the second half and built the lead to 20 points. The Big Apple was in the crosshairs, and Vandy was shooting straight. Down the stretch, New Orleans committed numerous fouls, and the Goldmen converted most into free throws. Final score: VU 88, UNO 65. Vandy hit 31 of 38 at the charity stripe (compared to 8-of-13 for UNO), and won the battle of the boards by 20.

Game four: "Start spreading the news..."

The Commodores headed to New York, hometown of Coach Fogler. Filling out the quartet at the Garden were Penn State, New Mexico, and St. Louis. Vandy would face the 24-8 Nittany Lions in the first semi-final game, while the Lobos and Billikens faced off in the nightcap.

Coach Bruce Parkhill's Nttany Lions had a strong front line. 6-9 center Ed Fogell was the leading scorer. 6-7 forward James Barnes and 6-6 forward Dave Degitz completed the tough trio.

For the first time in the tournament, Vanderbilt opened the game blistering hot; in the first six minutes, Draud and Wilcox, the two remaining members of the "Bomb Squad," fell in love with the MSG rims. Draud connected on two quick treys; Wilcox then hit two in a row; and Draud added a third. Just for fun, Draud added one of those shorter shots that counted for only two points. The Commodores quickly led 17-9.

The Lions chipped away at the lad for the next seven minutes and went ahead 24-23. Off the bench, Morgan Wheat put Vandy back on top for good. He completed a three-point play to put VU up 26-24. The Commodores ended the half on an 8-2 run to lead 38-31.

The same killer spurt that had led Vanderbilt to victory three times in a row appeared for the fourth time. The Commodores played tough defense, gathered in a large majority of the rebounds, and ran their passing offense in a machine-like manner. The seven-point lead grew to 19 points at 62-43 with seven minutes left. Vanderbilt didn't hit another field goal the rest of the way, but added 13 additional free throws. Meanwhile, the defense kept the ball out of the paint and away from Fogell. Penn State cut the lead to 12 at one point but never got closer. Vandy won 75-62.

Four Commodores scored in double digits. Draud led the way with 20., and Wheat tossed in 13. Reid scored only six points, but his brilliant defensive work on Fogell held the Penn State star to half of his average in both points and rebounds.

Game five: Bringing it home

In the second semi-final game St. Louis had bested New Mexico 80-73, setting up a Commodore-Billiken final. Upon reaching the NIT finals, the Vanderbilt players were loose, not nervous. Led by the senior Wilcox, the team had a burning desire to end the season by bringing a trophy and banner home to Nashville. The off-day practice was one of the roughest and most physical of the entire season; a couple of times tempers flared.

St. Louis (21-11) had appeared in the NIT title game the year before, falling to St. John's. 6-8 senior forward Anthony Bonner was the main Billiken weapon. He averaged 19.9 points per game and led the nation with a 13.9 rebound average. Coach Rich Grawer had two capable outside shooters in Charles Newberry and Jeff Luechtefeld.

Draud began the title game with yet another hot hand, quickly firing two three-point attempts and hitting both as Vandy sprinted out to the lead. Defensively, Fogler switched his squad back and forth between pressure man-to-man and a 1-3-1 point zone. Vandy used its regular run-and-jump and trap options as well. In the first 20 minutes Bonner got few scoring opportunities. Vanderbilt maintained a small lead through the half and led 31-28 at halftime.

About 1,000 Vandy supporters among the 12,000+ in attendance awaited one final second-half spurt. Would lightning strike again? Yes, it would. In the first 10 minutes of the second half Wilcox and Milholland couldn't miss, as Vandy went on a 25-11 run. When Reid drove for a lay-up, Vandy led 56-39. Twice before, the Commodores trailed by 17 points and come back to win; could SLU mount a Commodore-like comeback? Yes, it could.

Pressing and trapping, the Billikens forced VU into a few turnovers. The Commodore passing game broke down and stopped producing, while the SLU guards found their outside touch. Luechtefeld hit three treys, and Newberry connected on a pair; add to that a few close-in buckets by Bonner, and Vandy was in trouble. With three minutes and change remaining, the 17-point lead was down to two, 64-62. After another Vandy misfire, The Billikens had a chance to tie or take the lead. Newberry drove toward the lane and was fouled. On a one-and-one attempt... he missed!

As the announcer barked, "one minute to go in the game," Vandy led, 67-65. The Billikens had the ball and worked for an open shot to tie or take the lead (in 1990, the shot clock was turned off in the final two minutes of the game). Newberry found an opening from 20 feet; his 3-point attempt just missed. Vandy rebounded and went into the four-corners stall.

In the final 0:50, SLU was forced to foul repeatedly. Fogler's Commodores would finish third in the nation in free throw percentage, and of the nine free throw attempts in the final minute, they connected on seven. Wilcox hit four in a row in the crucial stretch. Anglin hit two to push the lead to 73-69 in the final 15 seconds. The Billikens tried for another three-pointer but turned the ball over. Ball game! Wilcox hit the first of two foul shots to make it 74-69, and SLU got a trey at the buzzer to make the final score 74-72. About 250 Vandy fans stormed the floor to celebrate an NIT championship.

Wilcox led the team in scoring in his final game with 16. Draud (named tournament MVP) added 15, and Wheat contributed 13. Milholland and Anglin each tallied nine points, with Anglin dishing out five assists. Bonner warmed up for SLU and finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Vandy finished the season with 21 victories, the most since 1974. Seniors Wilcox and Reid became the first pair of Commodores to appear in four post-season tournaments.

The 1990 Commodores advanced to the National Invitational Tournament championship in New York City.

Season Epilogue

This is the last historical article of the season. It has been a pleasure compiling the information as we reminisce about past Vanderbilt glory days. May the next generation of black and gold fans be able to look back on our current era and have plenty of happy times to recall!

Sources: Nashville Tennessean, Nashville Banner, New York Times.

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