Vanderbilt slams Auburn, 76-71

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The sudden death nature of tournament play now has a different meaning to the Vanderbilt Commodores. Because they know what a sudden death situation can look like, and it has nothing to do with basketball. Three days after seeing teammate Davis Nwankwo collapse on the practice floor and nearly die, Vanderbilt knocked out Auburn 76-71 in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

The Commodores all wore No. 42 on their shoes in tribute to their teammate, whose basketball career is over before his redshirt freshman season was complete because of an enlarged heart.

The Vanderbilt locker room was jubilant after the win, but player after player paused when asked what this trying week has been like.

"We appreciate the game and every day we are still living because there is somebody that isn't going to wake up this morning and others who wish they had the opportunity to play and can't," said Shan Foster. "It is pretty motivating for us."

Alex Gordon paused during his otherwise upbeat interview to say, "We're just blessed to have (Davis). I'm speechless. I can't explain how we were feeling at the moment. It was in God's hands and it came out for the good."

Derrick Byars, sitting with an ice pack on a sore ankle, said, "It is just an indescribable feeling we have right now that we can look over and see his smiling face. We all love him. Just to have him in this locker room is so big."

And so when things got a bit dicey against Auburn down the stretch on Thursday, the Commodores maintained their poise, something they haven't done with regularity this season. Auburn went on an 8-2 run to narrow Vanderbilt's lead to 68-66 with 1:15 to play, but instead of turnovers and missed shots, Vanderbilt came through. Byars dropped in a jumper, Dan Cage grabbed some defensive rebounds and Vanderbilt sealed the game at the foul line.

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"We were poised at the end and made better decisions," Stallings said.

The win sets up a rematch with LSU on Friday, a team that beat Vanderbilt 77-66 at Memorial Gym late in the season. But the Tigers will be without forward Tyrus Thomas, whom Stallings called the Freshman of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year in the conference.

Vanderbilt beat Auburn on the strength of the long-distance shooting of Foster and Byars. Foster had 20 points and Byars 21, and the pair hit 10 three-pointers between them. Julian Terrell battled his way to 13 points and eight rebounds, giving the Dores just enough presence inside to counteract Auburn's zone.

"If you just sit back and shoot the three against a zone, the zone is usually going to win," Stallings said. "We need to get it in the paint, and we were able to do that tonight."

Vanderbilt shot 50 percent (11 for 22) from three for the night and held the lead for the better part of the second half. It was in contrast to last season's SEC Tournament loss to Auburn, when the Dores trailed all night and lost to an inferior Tiger team.

The Dores will now face a superior Tiger team on Friday, one that went 14-2 in league play this season.

"LSU has a team capable of winning this tournament without (Thomas)," Stallings said.

When things get tough against the Tigers, the Commodores undoubtedly will look at the No. 42 on their shoes and realize that, win or lose, they are fortunate to simply be playing the game.

Auburn's Frank Tolbert, center, struggles for control of the ball between Vanderbilt's Alex Gordon, left, and Julian Terrell, during the first half at the 2006 Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2006, at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Bill Trocchi is the Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports. Top Stories