ATHENS, Ga.-- For the first time in his ten-year head coaching career, Kevin Stallings was ejected from a game Saturday afternoon.
Oh, he'd come close before. Many times-- including twice previously this season, vs. Notre Dame and South Carolina-- he'd been assessed technicals for extra-curricular comments to referees. But somehow throughout his career he'd managed to avoid drawing that second technical that means automatic ejection.
And naturally, after the game, it was all anyone wanted to talk about. Here's how it happened:
Despite entering Saturday's game a heavy road dog to No. 20 Georgia, Stallings' team came out more ready to play than in any game since the Ole Miss game a fortnight ago. The Commodores never led in the first half, but were playing with the mental toughness required for a road game against a team of this caliber. They were taking care of the ball, getting good looks, playing defense, and generally making things interesting for Jim Harrick's Bulldogs.
And they were doing it in spite of the absence of their two leading scorers, Matt Freije and Brian Thornton. Both had been rendered non-factors, limited to seven first-half minutes apiece due to untimely fouls. Freije picked up his third foul with 8:52 left in the first on the most ticky-tacky of touches; Thornton, after missing a couple of early inside shots that he really should have made, had gotten frazzled and picked up two.
Referees Tony Greene, Jamie Jones and Jamie Luckie-- a crew seldom seen on SEC hardcourts-- seemed determined to turn the game into a foul-a-thon. The threesome had called a whopping 26 fouls in the game's first 20 minutes.
Nonetheless, behind some good relief minutes from freshman Julian Terrell-- who played his finest game yet-- Vandy trailed 33-28 at the break.
Early in the second half, the Dawgs seized control of the game with two quick fast-break jams off Vandy turnovers. Stallings called a quick time-out. Next a Bulldog went over Freije's back to block his shot from behind-- no call. Ezra Williams dribbled the court and canned a quick three-pointer. Before you could blink, Georgia's 5-point lead was up to 14.
Meanwhile Freije picked up his fourth foul with 16:47 left-- again, on the most incidental of contact. You could see Stallings start to percolate on the bench.
Mario Moore answered with a 3-pointer, and was fouled on the play. The play that pushed Stallings over the edge was a rebound by Brian Thornton off Moore's free throw. As Thornton gathered the ball to himself, Georgia's mammoth center Steve Thomas gave him a shot in the back with a forearm. Again, no call.
"Thornton had gotten the ball and they [threw a forearm] in his back," said Stallings afterwards. "We've done that, and it's a foul. You... you just can't do that. We do it a lot, and we get called for it. I asked the official, is that not a foul? Of course, he didn't respond."
Stallings, though standing entirely within the coaches' box and under complete control, didn't let up. "Or is it just not a foul at home?" he asked drily.
The referee stopped play and teed up Stallings-- to the roar of the hostile Stegeman Coliseum crowd.
Stallings didn't stop. Since the clock was now stopped, Stallings demanded to have his say. He continued to bend the official's ear.
But let it be noted that this was no Bobby Knight-esque tirade-- not even close. Though determined to give the striped-shirts a piece of his mind, Stallings was still very much under control. He never touched any of the three referees. He never took off his coat, or stomped or threw anything. It was all calculated and measured.
So what did he do that drew the second technical?
"I said something after that, that I probably deserved a technical for," acknowledged Stallings.
The second one, of course, meant automatic ejection. Still not finished, Stallings continued to plead his case. At last he walked stoically past the Georgia bench and into the tunnel, not to be heard from again. (He was reduced to listening to the game's final 16 minutes over a transistor radio thoughtfully brought in by one of the managers.)
Assistant Coach Jeff Jackson took over on the bench-- it should be noted that he never left the coaches' box.
Afterwards Stallings said his actions were not the result of frustration he felt due to Georgia's 11-4 run to start the second half.
"I wasn't frustrated," he insisted. "I just felt like I had to stand up for our players. I thought Freije's third and fourth foul both were very incidental.
"People can make their own evaluation of how the game was officiated. I truly was not frustrated. I just felt like I had to stand up for our players, because I didn't feel like our players-- particularly some of our better players-- were getting a good enough end of the whistle."
Stallings said the way the game was unfolding left him no choice.
"You regret not being in the game and yet, you feel like you have no choice, because if you don't stand up and fight for your team, nobody's going to. I thought our team needed someone to stand up and fight for them. That's my responsibility, to fight for them, so that's what I did."
Drawing a technical to fire up the team is a ploy almost as old as basketball itself, and this time it seemed to work-- at least for awhile. The Dawgs' Richard Wehunt hit all four foul shots to put Georgia up 48-32. But behind the aggressive play of Corey Smith, Scott Hundley and Terrell, the team clawed back into the game with a 15-4 run that put the Dores right back in the thick of things.
"I think it fired the guys up a little bit," said Matt Freije, who watched the rally from the bench. "We saw the coach was going to fight for us, that he was going to fight for our fouls and make sure everything is called fairly. We know we've got to fight for him then."
Ultimately the home Bulldogs prevailed, 83-70, and avenged a previous loss to Vandy in Nashville. But say what you want about Stallings' gambit-- at a pivotal point in the game, when it seemed on the verge of careening out of control-- he exhibited an intensity and grit that ultimately served to lift his team.
After the loss, unlike after the previous three losses, Stallings praised the team's toughness. His team had cut down on its turnovers (13) and held a streaky-shooting Georgia team to 42% from the floor.
"I thought [our guys] fought hard," said Stallings. "We missed some free throws, and we missed some box-outs when they were shooting free throws. But our team competed hard. It's all I can expect them to do-- come out and do their best. I really thought they played with maximum effort. We were just beaten by a better team today."