Vanderbilt’s Southeastern Conference schedule opened Wednesday night, and while a packed Memorial Gym had its shoes shined and buckles polished for the ESPN2 crew, the Commodores treated Alabama as if it were Alabama A&M.
By Bill Trocchi
Mario Moore and Jason Holwerda scored 16 points each and Vanderbilt held Alabama to a season-low in points as the Dores recorded a 70-56 win over No. 19 Alabama before a loud 12,231 at Memorial Gym.
The game came complete with the trademark Commodore second-half brain-lock, where a comfortable 20-plus point lead becomes iffy at some point, but this one never got to the heart-attack stage as Vanderbilt moved to 10-0 at home and 10-4 overall while Alabama dropped to 11-3.
“We would liked to have made it prettier, but I admire how hard we played defense and rebounded,” said an elated Kevin Stallings after the win. “That will cover a multitude of sins.”
If the Commodores committed a multitude of sins, they were squeezed into about a six-minute stretch in the second half. With 13:13 to play, Vanderbilt led 58-32, playing the Clark Kent-to-Superman role inside the Memorial Gym phone booth. But the Crimson Tide started to rally, using a full-court press to disrupt the Vanderbilt offense. Alabama outscored the Dores 24-6, and suddenly it was an eight-point affair with five minutes to go.
But Holwerda, along with Corey Smith, made one of those ‘don’t show up in the box score’ plays, diving to the floor to come up with a loose ball. The scrum led to a Moore layup, and Vanderbilt regained control.
“That was the turning point,” said Holwerda, who had seven rebounds to go along with his 16 points. “They had all the momentum at that point. I had a chance to make a play and I went for it.”
Vanderbilt held on from there, as the Commodores tenacious rebounding and defense continued to carry the day. Vanderbilt outrebounded Alabama 41-25, ripping down 17 offensive boards on the night. That led to a 27-11 advantage in second-chance points, which pretty much proved to be the difference.
“I didn’t expect that,” Holwerda said of the rebounding edge. “We’ve made a conscious effort to concentrate on it the last few weeks.”
The highlight of a hard-fought first half was a three-point barrage by Moore. The diminutive point knocked down three threes in less than a minute, creating a 9-0 run all by his lonesome, then bouncing back to the huddle. Vanderbilt led 41-27 at that point and Memorial, with super-punk Ron Artest in attendance, roared its approval.
“I let the game come to me,” Moore said. “I didn’t want to rush shots. That disrupts our offense. When the shots came, I was able to knock them down.”
Vanderbilt attacked from long range in the first half, as Shan Foster hit two of his four threes and the Dores hit nine overall. In the second half, Alabama extended its pressure, and Vanderbilt took advantage with some backdoor layups.
“Our team is understanding how to take advantage of what the defense gives us,” Stallings said.
Defensively, Vanderbilt was able to slow down Alabama’s Big Three of Earnest Shelton (8 points), Kennedy Winston (16) and Chuck Davis (2), who were averaging 50 points a game as a group entering the game. Jermareo Davidson shook loose for 21 points inside, but overall it was one of the top defensive efforts of the season.
“We were hoping to stop one of their big three,” Stallings said. “As it turned out, we held all three below their average.”
Dan Cage was instrumental in slowing Shelton as the two were involved in some physical altercations in the first half. Cage did not back down to the Memphis native and Shelton did not score until the second half.
“We’ve got to go home and regroup,” said Alabama coach Mike Gottfried, who has lost four straight to Vanderbilt. “We cut it to eight at one point, but we couldn’t get over the hump. We have to do a much better job.”