NEW ORLEANS-- With little left to play for besides personal pride, a downtrodden Vanderbilt team gathered itself for one of its finest performances of the season Thursday evening and recorded its first SEC Tournament win in three years. The Commodores upset Alabama 82-69 at the Louisiana Superdome and earned the right to a Friday rematch with No. 2 Kentucky.
The win may have dealt a mortal blow to Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide (17-11), which desperately needed another win or two to impress the NCAA selection committee. But it was the Commodores (11-17), which had come to the Big Easy riding a nine-game losing streak, who played like a team desperate to impress someone. Behind the hot shooting of Mario Moore (25 points, 6-of-8 3-pointers) and Matt Freije (24 points, 8 rebounds), Vandy stormed to an 18-5 lead in the first four minutes and held off numerous second-half Bama surges to preserve the win.
"I thought that was as good an effort as we've had on both ends of the floor all season long," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team collected its first win since Feb. 1. "Offensively we executed very well. Defensively we had some outstanding performances, Jason Holwerda in particular (on Alabama guard Maurice Williams).
"I'm just very proud of our players. After you've lost nine in a row, it's easy to get your heads down, and it's hard sometimes to come back after losing like we have. But I'm very proud of our team for sticking with it."
Moore, who started the game at point guard in place of Russell Lakey, hit three early 3-pointers to spark Vandy to an 18-5 lead.
"I just felt comfortable," said Moore, whose 25 points were a career high. "This is like a whole new season. Coach just told me to look for shots and shoot it if I was open, and I did." Moore hit another 3 to give Vandy a 36-23 lead, and another just before halftime to make the margin 46-37 at the break.
Twice in the second half the Tide was able to pull within four points, at 50-46 and 59-55, but each time the Commodores were able to stem the rallies. With four minutes remaining an Erwin Dudley tip-in cut Vandy's lead to 72-67. But Corey Smith (15 points) connected on the third of his three second-half treys, and two Freije free throws stretched the lead back to 77-67. After Vanderbilt hit five more free throws, Coach Mark Gottfried allowed Vandy to dribble away the game's final 33 seconds.
It was one of those nights when everything seemed to work for Vanderbilt. The Commodores shot 52.0%, their best since their last win (Feb. 1 over Ole Miss). They committed only 10 turnovers, the fewest of the season (tied with 10 in a December win over High Point). Though outrebounded 34-28, Vandy had 8 steals and scored 20 points off 12 Alabama turnovers.
"I give [the players] the credit," said Stallings. "We didn't run one new play tonight. We didn't run one new defense. We were just doing what we've done, and we did it very well tonight. In a situation where you lose embarrassingly, and then you lose a tough game that you've led the whole way, a lot of teams would give in-- and they didn't."
It was Alabama's second loss of the season to Vanderbilt-- the Commodores prevailed 70-69 on Jan. 11 in Nashville.
Meanwhile the Commodores advance to take on SEC regular-season champion Kentucky Friday at 6:30 p.m. CT, a team that annihilated Vanderbilt 106-44 just eight days earlier in Lexington. Though the No. 2 Wildcats will come in on an amazing 18-game winning streak, Stallings and several of his players all said they welcomed another shot at the Wildcats.
"Tomorrow we have a chance to in some ways redeem ourselves, and hopefully we'll do that," said Stallings.
"We're all excited about it," said Corey Smith. "To get a chance to redeem ourselves is a pleasure. We're going out there to play hard. It's a new season."
In other Friday quarterfinal games, Ole Miss, which defeated South Carolina, takes on Mississippi State at noon CT; LSU, which pummeled Arkansas, meets Florida at 2:15; and Tennessee takes on Auburn in the nightcap at 8:45.