NEW ORLEANS-- How big was Thursday night's victory over Alabama for Kevin Stallings' Commodores? The win snapped a nine-game losing streak and kept the team from going into 2003-04 on a ten-game slide. It was also Vandy's first win away from Memorial Gym all year-- the Commodores went 0-11 on the road in the regular season.
It restored the team's confidence-- momentarily at least-- after the Commodores had struggled down the stretch and finished 10-17. Perhaps more importantly, it gave Stallings a little wiggle room with a fan base that had become increasingly surly after Vandy finished with its worst conference mark since World War II (3-13).
Thursday's win was also Vandy's first SEC Tournament win since 2000, Stallings' first season, when the Commodores defeated Mississippi State 76-53. In that game, it was freshman Rick Jones who ignited the team by hitting on an amazing 8-of-9 3-pointers.
Thursday, it was another freshman, Mario Moore, who sparked the Commodores to victory. "Little Dude" came close to matching Jones' mark with 6-of-8 from 3-point range, on the way to a career-high and team-leading 25 points. Three of his treys came in the first four minutes, when Vandy spurted to an 18-5 lead.
Moore was surrounded by microphones in the media crush afterwards.
"It just feels good to get a win," said Moore. "Alabama's a great team. We just came out and executed, played hard defense. Things went our way tonight. We got a good win, and on to the next one."
"Moore stepped up tonight," said Stallings. "He was big for what we were doing. He created for others."
Publicly, everyone Thursday night was espousing the party line that Alabama, at 17-11, was still more than worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. But realistically, the loss to Vandy puts the Tide's hopes in serious jeopardy.
Mark Gottfried's team finished with a losing record in the conference (7-9), and dropped six of its last ten, 11 of its last 19. Cynics will point out that Alabama lost twice during the season to Vanderbilt, arguably the SEC's worst team.
Hard to believe that a team ranked No. 1 for two weeks in late December may not make the tournament at all. If the Tide does make it in, it will be based on strength of schedule and a couple of quality wins in December (Oklahoma and Xavier).
"We'll be waiting by the TV Sunday," said Tide guard Antoine Pettway. "Now we have to sweat it out."
For a conference hoping to shove seven or eight of its teams into the NCAA's, Thursday's loss was the worst thing that could have happened. But hey, Alabama did the same thing to Vanderbilt in the 1998 SEC Tournament in Atlanta. The NCAA snubbed Jan van Breda Kolff's team after the Crimson Tide and lame-duck coach David Hobbs upset the Commodores in the opening round, 72-62.
Technically, the SEC Tournament is considered a neutral site... but in tonight's second session the Louisiana Superdome will be anything but.
The Commodores and Crimson Tide played Thursday night before a sparse crowd of less than 9,000 (made worse, of course, by the withdrawal of Georgia from the tournament). But when second-ranked Kentucky (26-3) brings its Big Blue circus into town on Friday evening, the house is likely to be packed and rockin'.
Wild-eyed Kentucky fans are notorious for planning their vacations around the SEC Tournament. You have to give them credit-- they somehow manage to soak up unused tickets from all available sources. Meanwhile Vanderbilt will be lucky to have more than 500 supporters in the building.
As a result, when the Wildcats take the floor at 6:30 p.m. CT Friday, you can forgive the Commodores if they have a mild Rupp Arena flashback.
Just kidding, of course. You gotta take them one game at a time.
But should the Commodores manage to derail the Wildcats' freight train, they would play again at 2:15 p.m. CT Saturday-- on less than 18 hours of rest-- vs. the Tigers-Vols winner.
Will it happen? Probably not, but it's March Madness, baybee, and strange things seem to happen this time of year. Why, just yesterday lowly UCLA (9-18) stunned top-ranked Arizona (25-2) in the Pac-Ten Tournament, where Thursday saw the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 seeds all lose in the quarterfinals.
In 1996 Rick Pitino brought a Kentucky team loaded with future NBA stars here to the Superdome... a team that, like this year's Cats, had gone 16-0 through the SEC... a team that would go on to win a National Championship. But that team lost in the finals of the SEC Tournament to Dontae Jones and Mississippi State, 84-73-- a loss that is still fresh in the minds of Wildcat supporters.