Disappointed Vandy must look ahead

After a bitter disappointment in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt must turn its attention to the NCAA Tournament. That, however, may be more easily said than done.

ATLANTA-- Ahh, the gross unfairness of it all. If Shan Foster's coffin-corner shot finds net with 0:05 left, a jubilant Vanderbilt squad extends its stay another day, and stays alive for the SEC Tournament championship.

Alas, the shot rimmed high and fell into the waiting arms of Arkansas' Gary Ervin. Instead of meeting a vulnerable Mississippi State team on Saturday, the hard-luck Commodores were forced to cancel their reservations at the Marriott Marquis and board buses bound for Nashville. Arkansas, a 72-71 winner in Friday's thrilling afternoon quarterfinal, happily took the second-seeded Commodores' spot.

Such are the bitter cruelties of post-season play.

Recipients of a Thursday bye for the first time in 14 years, Kevin Stallings' Commodores had come to the Georgia Dome hoping to hang around for a couple of days, maybe even win the school's first SEC Tournament title in more than half a century. Instead, Vanderbilt and its disappointed throng of headband-wearing fans must ponder what might have been, and move on.

"This is going to be a hard one to swallow," said senior Dan Cage, who contributed 12 points in a losing effort. "We came here with a mission, and that was to win the whole tournament. We felt like we were capable of doing that, and we had a good few days of preparation.

"We were excited to come here and play three good days of basketball. Unfortunately we weren't able to do that."

Vanderbilt has made some forgettable early exits from the SEC Tourney in recent years. This one was disappointing, yes-- but quickly forgettable it was not. It kept the afternoon crowd of 17,068 at the Georgia Dome riveted until the final buzzer.

Foster's 3-point attempt from the left corner, had it fallen, would likely have given the 'Dores a 74-72 win. Stallings himself could hardly have selected a better shot-- or a better shooter-- to take the game-winner. The Georgia Dome rim was simply unkind to the 6-6 junior, who had already dropped in 13 points.

In the locker room afterwards, a tearful Foster was barely able to wrest his head from his jersey in order to answer reporters' questions. But Foster's teammates were quick to deflect any blame from him and point to other stretches when the entire team had played poorly.

"We've got a couple of guys who maybe want to blame themselves for this loss, and that's simply not the case," said Cage. "There were several times in the game when we could have really pulled ahead, or closed the margin. We didn't take care of business. Unfortunately that left us susceptible to end-of-the-game situations like what happened today.

"Shan's the one we want shooting that shot, from now until the end of time. He's going to make that shot 9 times out of 10. This just happened to be the one day it didn't go in. He's a great shooter. He's made big plays all year."

A mere six days earlier in Nashville, the Commodores had dug themselves into a hole too deep to overcome and lost to these same Razorbacks, 82-67. With 15 minutes left in this one, it looked as though the same thing was about to transpire. Arkansas took a 44-36 lead and appeared ready to administer the Commodores their second butt-kicking in seven days.

But this time, instead of folding, Vanderbilt gamely battled back to erase the lead and take an 8-point lead of its own with 6 minutes left. Down the stretch the players did plenty of the kind of things that NCAA Tournament-ready teams do, including scoring on a nifty inbounds play after a timeout to take a 71-70 lead.

But alas, it wasn't to be. Arkansas, battling to win an NCAA berth as well as save embattled coach Stan Heath's job, took the lead back for good at 72-71 with 0:12 left when Gary Ervin drove the lane and scored.

Thankfully, unlike recent years, an NCAA bid wasn't hanging on Vandy's SEC Tournament performance. The 'Dores, bracketologists agree, remain a near-lock for the NCAA Tournament, which begins in earnest next Thursday. Seedings and destinations will be announced Sunday afternoon.

"We'll just have to get focused this coming week to get ready for whomever we get seeded with," said Cage. "Hopefully we'll get a little different outcome in a week or two."

The afternoon's contest was the second of a pair of thrillers. In another Friday quarterfinal, Mississippi State ousted Kentucky 84-82. Arkansas thus faces Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs in the semifinal round at 1 pm ET Saturday.

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