-- Coach Kevin Stallings, 2/8/2006, after losing to Alabama
Tough defense and a near steal by Vanderbilt resulted in an Alabama inbounds play with roughly 18 seconds remaining. With fewer than 10 seconds on the clock, Jean Felix chose to take an off-balance three point shot with a hand in his face. Felix, up to that point on the night, was 0-for-8 on his three point attempts and 0-for-10 from the field. Of course, the shot improbably went in with only 8 seconds remaining in regulation, forcing an answer from the Commodores.
The ‘Dores did answer with a Shan Foster three pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining – giving Foster 30 points on the night and giving Vanderbilt a two point lead. However, a long inbounds pass to the freethrow line followed by a second pass to an open Alabama player set up a game tying layup, sending the game to overtime.
Nothing went the Commodores' way in overtime – DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell each collected their fifth foul. With only three seconds left in the game, Shan Foster was setting up for another three point attempt to tie the game when he was fouled, sending him to the freethrow line for a one-and-one. Foster missed his first shot, but the Dores secured the rebound. A quick pass to Dan Cage – the three point specialist – set up an open three that would have tied the game. But it would not fall. Alabama won, 77-74.
Dan Cage once again showed his character and maturity after the game, taking responsibility for Vanderbilt's tough loss in a game where many plays were game-decisive. "It was a perfect look and a great pass, I just missed it," said Cage about his last shot attempt. "I feel bad about it. I know that there were a lot of other things going on in the game, but I feel like I let the team down." Don't feel too bad, Dan – that shot would only have tied the game, forcing Vanderbilt to play five more minutes without its two most prominent post players.
"Tonight, we just didn't get it done," said Shan Foster. "We played hard. We made a lot of shots, but they made more." Foster's synopsis of the game is right on target – Vanderbilt played through a good deal of adversity on Wednesday night. Mario Moore's leave of absence deprived the team of another talented, experienced player. Derrick Byars played nearly half the game on a twisted ankle. Alex Gordon and the rest of the Dores also fought through their share of bumps and bruises. The starting five – Gordon, Byars, Foster, Carroll, and Terrell – each played over 33 minutes. Foster played 42. Dan Cage played a season-high 28 minutes, and Davis Nwankwo added 18. Ted Skuchas, the former starter who contributed two fouls and a turnover to the Commodore effort, played only one minute.
The Commodores again suffered because of a foul disparity in this road game. Alabama's physical play caused 17 Commodore fouls compared to Alabama's 13. While the Crimson Tide shot 19 freethrows, Vanderbilt only attempted 9. This would not be remarkable if it were not part of a trend for the Commodores. In their 5 SEC road games so far this season, the Commodores have been called for 84 fouls – their opponents only fouled 65 times. Additionally, Vanderbilt's opponents in these five road games have attempted 106 freethrows to Vanderbilt's 62 attempts. In Vanderbilt's SEC home games, the Commodores have fouled five fewer times than their opponents, and have shot five fewer freethrows.
While Julian Terrell and DeMarre Carroll fouled out in overtime, they by no means played poorly. Terrell was Vanderbilt's finest post defender in the game, while adding 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Carroll was only one point and one rebound short of a double-double despite shooting an unusually low percentage from the field. However, Shan Foster certainly stole the show for Vandy. His stat-line tells most of the story: 11-for-20 overall, 6-for-13 on three pointers, 2 rebounds, 30 points, 4 assists, 1 turnover, 42 minutes played.
Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried gave Shan Foster some respect after the game: "You have to give Vanderbilt a lot of credit. Foster was great for them tonight. The game just came down to a few big-time plays… we were lucky to make one more play than they did tonight."
"[Shan] caught fire in the second half," said Derrick Byars, who was second among the Commodores in scoring. Indeed, over two thirds of Shan's points came after halftime. The Commodore offense seemed to click on all cylinders, creating lay-ups from backcuts in the first half, while creating more open three-point chances in the second half as Alabama adjusted their defense.
Vanderbilt made adjustments on defense as well – after playing man-to-man primarily for most of the year, Vanderbilt moved into a 2-3 zone defense for most of the night. The defense appeared to be fairly effective, but it created difficulties on the defensive boards, as the Commodores had trouble boxing out the aggressive Alabama players. Alabama collected 12 offensive rebounds on 34 missed Commodore shots (35.3%), while Vanderbilt got 12 offensive boards on 39 misssed shots by the Tide (23%).
Alabama ultimately outdid Vanderbilt in all three key areas of the game. Ronald Steele, Alabama's point guard, collected 22 points on 11 shots, dominating Vanderbilt's point guards in production. Vanderbilt's depth management was shattered by foul trouble, including two players fouling out, while only one Alabama player collected more than 2 fouls at any point in the game. Finally, Vanderbilt's post defense was not up to the task against the NBA-bound duo of Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. Those two players combined for 29 points and 22 rebounds, while Vanderbilt's post tandem of Carroll and Terrell scored 15 points and collected 15 rebounds.
Alabama is 6-3 after this game, and barring a major series of setbacks, seems to be NCAA-bound. Vanderbilt, at 3-6, will frankly need a miracle to reach their goals for this season. However, optimists still see a glimmer of hope. If Vanderbilt wins their four home games, it will only take a 1-2 mark on the road to finish 8-8 in the murderously tough SEC East. That 8-8 mark would match the record of 2003-04's Sweet Sixteen squad, who earned a #6 seed in the NCAA tournament with two SEC tournament victories and an undefeated pre-conference record.
Whether tournament-bound or not, the Commdores showed the world on Wednesday that they are a team worth watching – a team who gives 100% when others would simply give up. As long as these remarkable individuals play with the heart of a champion, there will be thousands of fans in Memorial cheering them on through thick and thin.