From the opening tip, the noise level was deafening. Up in 3F where I sit, many crimson-clad Tide fans were woofing about how the Tide would sink the Commodores.
In the early going both teams traded baskets. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, the light bulb switched on for Vandy's shooters, and the Commodores broke out of the shooting doldrums in a big way.
At the 14:24 mark Russell Lakey pulled up for a three-pointer and drained it to give Vandy a 7-4 lead. The rest of the half Vanderbilt launched six more threes, and four of them went down. Freije, Smith and Przybyszewski each knocked down open threes (two for Matt), and Vanderbilt slowly and methodically built a 12-point lead with 3:31 left in the first half. Scott Hundley's play was also key late in the half; the 6-5 junior, playing at guard, drove the lane three different times for layups.
Alabama battled back to cut the lead to 36-30 at break. However, by halftime coach Mark Gottfried's was sweating a little more profusely. He had complained before the game that Vanderbilt had moved the tipoff back to help Commodore fans make most of the game (great job, by the way, VU athletic department)-- and as it turned out, he was right. By the beginning of the second half many fans who had attended the Titans game were seated at Memorial and primed for more blood.
Freije hit a two-point jumper and subsequent foul shot to lift the Dores to a nine-point lead to open the second half. But Alabama, one of the country's best defensive teams, began noticeably bearing down on defense-- the Tide went on a 20-9 spurt to take a 50-48 lead with 11:19 left. Vanderbilt answered, not necessarily with points, but with outstanding team play. Freije scored on a slam after a great assist from Julian Terrell. The crowd was brought to its feet when Russell Lakey blocked a Maurice Williams three-point attempt, caught the ball before it went out of bounds, and flipped it to Mario Moore, who drew a foul.
Vanderbilt took the lead at 52-50 on a Terrell jumper, but when Matt Freije sat down with his fourth foul with 8:47 left, things began to look grim. Freije's absence only seemed to fire up the crowd though, and from that point on the Dores showed remarkable grit. Fourth-ranked Alabama evened the score at 52, but Vanderbilt, which had already faced three Top Ten teams this season, never blinked. Brian Thornton hit a little shot in the lane, and Lakey drained another three with 6:00 left. Vanderbilt would never trail again.
Alabama continued to press and fight back. The Crimson Tide had cut the lead to 63-61 when, with the shot clock running down and the game clock at 0:20, Lakey hit yet another off-balance three (reminiscent of the LSU game last year). The clutch outside shot gave Vandy a 66-61 lead.
Maurice Williams, the SEC's Freshman of the Year last year, hit two three-pointers and made a layup in the game's last 0:12. Thankfully, the Commodores hit their free throws down the stretch to take an insurmountable 70-66 lead. Maurice Williams hit his last three-pointer with .1 seconds left, but a simple inbounds toss ended the game. Fans of the Black and Gold flooded the floor, and the Bama fans exited Memorial with yet another loss. (The Tide hadn't won in Memorial Gym since 1990-- and they still haven't.)
"Offensively, that's the best we've played in a long, long time," said Kevin Stallings afterwards. "We kind of made some adjustments to our offense after the Auburn game and I think we showed some results of that tonight. It was a night where again we really didn't have Brian and Matt on their A-game, so the encouraging thing is that there is still room for improvement."
Stallings wasn't overly pleased with the defensive performance in the second half but was happy the offense was able to play well. "We are just happy to beat someone in the Top Five," he said. "It means a lot for our team to win games. It is hard to win games in this league." Asked about the preseason schedule, Coach Stallings said he was worried that he may have overscheduled this year, though he wouldn't know for sure about that until the end of the season. There seemed little doubt, however, that the toughness developed by the grueling early-season schedule had helped the team win this game.
Stallings was also very happy with Scott Hundley's performance, calling it "superb." "He is making significant contributions to the team," Stallings added.
With the win Vanderbilt improved to 8-5, 1-1 in the SEC. The Commodores face Kentucky Tuesday night at Memorial Gym in a game that will be televised nationally by ESPN. Alabama fell to 11-2, 1-1.