NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- Rod Barnes' Ole Miss Rebels controlled the tempo, but in the end Vanderbilt's Commodores controlled the game. Behind Matt Freije's 20 points and Scott Hundley's 18, the Commodores jumped out to a 13-point second-half lead and hung on for a 76-68 home victory, their second conference win in a row.
The home crowd of 12,517 watched anxiously as a 13-point Commodore lead shrunk to a mere five points in the final 35 seconds. But Vanderbilt confounded the Ole Miss attack with a variety of zone defenses, and came up with defensive stops at key junctures to preserve the win. The Commodores went to the free throw line 31 times and hit 25, compared to 6-of-13 for Ole Miss.
With the win the Commodores improved to 10-8, 3-4 in the SEC. Kevin Stallings picked up his first win ever over Ole Miss (12-6, 3-4), the only SEC team he had not beaten in his first three years as Vanderbilt's head coach.
"We played with a high level of toughness," said Stallings. "Against Mississippi you're going to have to take the ball inside, because their defense is very strong on the perimeter. You know they're going to pressure you. As a result of that, you're going to get fouled. We got to the free-throw line 31 times."
Ole Miss slowed down the game to its favored deliberate pace, and Vandy's streak of hot-shooting games from 3-point range came to an end with a 3-of-14 total. But the Commodores turned in one of their best defensive efforts of the season in the second half-- they held Ole Miss to 37% from the floor in the second half after a 64% performance in the first.
For the second straight game, both Freije and Hundley turned in dazzling outings. Freije, who had scored 31 points in the 94-91 upset of No. 15 Georgia, never quite found the range from behind the arc against Mississippi but still managed a quiet 20 points. With 51 points over the last two games and five steals vs. the Rebels, Freije made a strong case for SEC Player of the Week.
Meanwhile Hundley, formerly the team's most undersung player, is about to be sung more loudly if he continues this level of play. The junior from Georgetown, Ky. came off the bench to eclipse his season scoring high for the second game in a row, and led the team in rebounds with seven. Despite not feeling well before the game, Hundley played a career-high 33 minutes and required an IV in the locker room after the game.
Brian Thornton, with 16 points, was the other Commodore in double figures. Justin Reed scored 26 points for the Rebels, and Emmanuel Wade scored 24 off the Rebel bench. But the Commodores held starting center Derrick Allen scoreless, and held starting guard Aaron Harper to 4 points on a 14-point average.
The Commodores caught a break early when Allen picked up two fouls in the first three minutes. Thornton took advantage of Allen's absence with six early points, and a Thornton dunk gave Vandy a 23-18 lead. Vanderbilt took a nine-point lead twice in the first half, but Ole Miss cut it to 33-30 just before halftime behind Reed's 14 first-half points.
Russell Lakey, however, came up with a big 3-pointer with five seconds left to give Vandy a 36-30 halftime lead. "That was a huge basket, because we were really struggling with their zone at the time," said Stallings. "Russ jumped up and made that basket, and it was really big."
The lead stayed between six and ten points for the first ten minutes of the second half. Mario Moore's stylish layup off a steal pushed the Dores' lead to 12 at 57-45, and Lakey hit four straight free throws to stretch the lead to 63-50. But at that point the Commodores' ball-handling got a bit sloppy, and Ole Miss refused to go quietly. Behind Wade, Reed and some pressure defense, the Rebels came roaring back in the game's final six minutes to cut the score to 70-64, and to 73-68 with 0:31 left on a putback by Wade.
With 0:31 left David Sanders immediately fouled Hundley, who knocked down two free throws. Unable to score, the Rebels were forced to foul Mario Moore, who made 1-of-2 to extend Vandy's lead to eight points. The visiting Rebels had three shots in the game's final seconds, but were unable to convert.
Sophomore forward Corey Smith sat out his second straight game with a fractured wrist.
The Commodores' next game is Wednesday vs. No. 21 Mississippi State at Starkville, Miss. Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs (13-5), which feature one of the SEC's best big men in Mario Austin, lost a road game to Georgia Saturday night, 67-63.