When the Tigers' Marquis Daniels missed the second of two free throws with 25 seconds left, the Commodores, trailing 62-59, had the ball and a chance to tie with a three-pointer. After a set play to Matt Freije failed to materialize, Vandy managed three off-kilter shots, but couldn't get one to fall-- and a chance to pull off a big road win slipped away.
"We're very, very disappointed," Head Coach Kevin Stallings said afterwards. "We thought this was a game we could win-- not a game we necessarily should win, because we think Auburn is a very good team. But it was a game we could have won. We played hard. We just didn't quite make the plays when we needed to."
Russell Lakey's three-pointer with 3:56 left gave Vanderbilt (7-5, 0-1) a 56-53 lead, but from that point on the game began to unravel for the Commodores. First the Tigers' Marco Killingsworth rebounded a missed Auburn free throw and put it back in; next a point-blank shot by Brian Thornton went halfway down before bounding out. Then Lewis Monroe, an unlikely candidate to shoot from outside, buried a three-pointer to give the Tigers a lead they would not relinquish at 58-56. The Tigers (12-2, 0-1) held Vanderbilt without a field goal for the game's final four minutes.
"We get the ball and Thornton misses at point blank range when we were up one, and then a 25% three-point shooter makes a three," lamented Stallings. "When the guy who is shooting 60% for you misses from a foot, and a guy who is shooting 20% for them makes it from three, then it is apparently not meant to be."
Brian Thornton scored 19 points in the second half on his way to a team high and a career high of 23. But the Commodores were undone in the second half by Killingsworth, who scored 18 points (on 9-of-11 from the floor) and pulled down a number of key offensive rebounds down the stretch.
"They couldn't guard Thornton in the second half, but we couldn't guard Killingsworth in the second half," Stallings observed.
The game, which went back and forth for most of the night, provided quite a spectacle for the 7,189 who saw it firsthand. The lead changed hands nine times, and there were 16 ties. Auburn never led by more than seven points, while Vanderbilt's biggest lead was four.
Instead of falling behind early as had become the pattern in the previous few games, the Commodores came out swinging with Brian Thornton picking up two quick inside buckets. But the Tigers, sparked by the return to the lineup of 6-8 sophomore Brandon Robinson, regained their composure and pushed out to a 6-point lead at 19-13. (Robinson, who was informed on Oct. 31 that the NCAA was looking into extra benefits he might have received while playing AAU basketball, had played in no games this season before being cleared Tuesday.)
After Brian Thornton and David Przybyszewski were forced to the bench with quick second fouls early in the first half, Scott Hundley came in to provide Vanderbilt with an emotional lift. The junior from Georgetown, Ky. scored seven first-half points, including a three-pointer. Vandy took a brief 23-21 lead on a Jason Holwerda bank shot, but the Commodores ended the half on one of their all-too-common offensive dry spells. Auburn scored the final seven points of the half to take a 28-23 halftime lead. Vandy shot a paltry 29% for the half, while Auburn shot 48%.
The second half was largely an inside-scoring duel between the two big men, Thornton and Killingsworth. Held to just five minutes of play in the first half due to early foul trouble, Thornton came out after halftime like a man possessed. He scored 15 of Vandy's first 24 points of the second half, and led the Commodores to their biggest lead at 47-43 with 12 minutes remaining. But back-to-back baskets by Killingsworth, both off offensive rebounds, gave Auburn the lead back at 51-49.
Thornton again scored back-to-back baskets, one on a goaltend, to tie the game at 53, and Russell Lakey's trey appeared to put Vandy in command with just under four minutes remaining. But the Commodores ventured upon another cold spell at crunch time, and the Tigers ultimately walked away with their 12th win of the season.
"We just let this one slip away," said Brian Thornton. "In the second half the shots just didn't go down for us." Vanderbilt warmed up from the floor in the second half but finished the game with a field goal percentage of only 37% on 23-of-62.
The Commodores were outrebounded, 34-33. Matt Freije was the Commodores' second-leading scorer behind Thornton with ten points. Jason Holwerda had only four points, but was invaluable down the stretch with six assists, many of which resulted in easy baskets for Thornton.
Vanderbilt returns home Saturday to face No. 4 Alabama (11-1, 1-0 SEC) in a game that will be televised regionally on Fox Sports South. Tipoff time has been moved to 8 p.m. CST. Alabama defeated Share on Twitter