NEW ORLEANS-- The result Friday night against No. 2 Kentucky was about what most people expected-- despite a respectable showing by outmanned Vandy, the Wildcats won 81-63 and weren't really threatened in the second half.
But Vanderbilt fans who may have left early or tuned out early missed something noteworthy.
With about seven minutes to play and Kentucky up by 27, Tubby Smith started substituting liberally, using freshmen Kelenna Azubuike, Brandon Stockton, Bernard Cote and others. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, on the other hand, left in his starters and the Commodores continued to play an aggressive man-to-man defense. The Commodores outscored UK in the final seven minutes 16-7, and cut the final margin to 18 points. During that time Stallings was actively exhorting his players and yelling instructions, even though the game was well out of reach.
Why is that significant? Because nine nights earlier in Lexington, after Smith had done the same thing with more than 11 minutes to play, Vanderbilt appeared to simply wave the white flag and fold. On Senior Night at Rupp, Kentucky's substitutes had outscored the Commodores 34-6 in the last 11:28 of that game, an alarming statistic which contributed in a big way to the outlandish 106-44 final score.
It may only be a small victory, but against a team like Kentucky-- a team that appears poised to run the NCAA table-- you look for anything you can find.
You really had to admire the fight in this Vanderbilt team Friday night. I think most fans figured that after the mauling it received at Rupp, the team would cower at the sight of Kentucky . But after beating Alabama Thursday, the players insisted that they relished another chance to match up with the Big Blue.
"I don't know about the rest of the guys but I'd actually like to play them," Matt Freije said Thursday. "We could kind of redeem ourselves for the way we played."
"We were not going to stand there and just take all of Kentucky's punishment," said Stallings. "It's that bully syndrome of, he's waiting out in the yard for you, and at some point you've got to go out there and fight him. We fought them tonight-- we fought them really hard in the first half, but the second half we couldn't stop them from scoring."
Did you know-- Vanderbilt is now 3-5 all-time vs. Kentucky in the SEC Tournament (fairly respectable considering the records of several other conference brethren vs. the Cats). Vandy's wins came in 1951, 1981 and 1989.
With three wins over Vanderbilt in the 2002-03 season, Kentucky now leads the all-time series with the Commodores by an astonishing 125-35.
With 25 points vs. Alabama and 18 points vs. Kentucky, fans might think Mario Moore merits considertion for the All-Tournament Team-- but he won't get it. Almost without exception, the All-Tournment Team is composed of players from teams which made the semifinals; in fact, it's not uncommon at all for four or five players to make the team from the two teams in the finals.
Nevertheless, Moore opened some eyes among onlookers in New Orleans. Averaging only 4.9 points per game coming into the Tournament, he proved himself capable of becoming a credible scoring threat to Matt Freije. He also handled the ball well and helped Vandy cut down on its turnovers.
Freije, with 37 points in two games, moved into 19th place on the Vanderbilt all-time scoring list. (Coincidentally, the player he passed, Will Perdue, was on hand for the game as Vanderbilt's "Chick-Fil-A Living Legend.")
Ending the 2003 season with 1,284 career points, Freije will need to average approximately 16 points per game next year to have a chance at breaking Phil Cox's career scoring record of 1,725. Freije averaged 17.9 points this season.