February 17, 2007

Vanderbilt dismantles No. 1 Florida

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Athletic contests are supposed to be a refuge from the rigors of the academic work at Vanderbilt.

But at halftime of Saturday's game against Florida, history was on the Commodores' mind.


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"At halftime, I heard a couple of our players say, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, referring to how his team lost an 11-point halftime lead in Gainesville in losing 74-64 to the Gators last month.

Evidently, that lesson had been committed to memory. Derrick Byars' 15-point second half helped the Commodores not only maintain their eight-point halftime lead, but add to it, as Vanderbilt (18-8, 8-4) knocked off the No. 1 Gators 83-70 at Memorial Gym.

"This is one for the ages, right here. Twenty years from now, I'll be able to tell my little kids this," said Byars, who scored 24 points, had eight assists and five steals.

"I've played in some big games before, man, but sometimes, you're just right there and can't get over the hump. But this one right here, it's just really special."

Florida (24-3, 11-1) kept the Commodores' lead in single-digits throughout the first 10 minutes of the half, and cut the lead to six on three occasions. But twice, Vandy's Shan Foster, who joined Byars as the game-high scorer, answered with 3-pointers at 18:11 and 12:57.

The last time, Vandy answered with a three-point play the old-fashioned way, when Ted Skuchas slammed home a dunk at the 12:00 mark, was fouled by Joakim Noah, and hit the ensuing free throw for a 55-46 Vandy lead.

The Gators got no closer than eight the rest of the way, as the Commodores held the nation's best-shooting team to 44 percent from the field, and forced Florida into 22 turnovers.

"[The defense] was good. It was active and good. We thought we had a good game plan, we thought we had a good game plan down there, and it unraveled the second half," said Stallings.

"But we executed it and we were able to just kind of keep them a little bit out of rhythm, and they're so good if they get into a rhythm. Honestly, that was my concern going into the game. I wasn't sure that we could do enough to keep them out of rhythm long enough."

The Commodores, meanwhile, shot 57 percent for the game, and 48 percent (10-of-21) from 3-point range.

However, Vandy was anything but effective offensively in the game's beginning, scoring just two points in the first 5:54 and trailing 7-2 early before Foster got heated up. The junior hit 5-of-7 first half shots, including a 3-of-4 performance from behind the 3-point arc, as the Commodores hit 60 percent from the field in the game's first 20 minutes.

What Foster started in the half, Byars finished, scoring nine of the team's final 11 points before the break. With the Commodores up 24-22, Byars added a driving lay-up on the left side, a 3-pointer over the 6-foot-11 all-American Noah, a spectacular, reverse one-hand dunk on a fast break and a driving layup with 1.2 seconds left.

Remembering Florida's ambush the first eight minutes of the second half in the previous meeting, Stallings wanted to ensure that this second half started on the right note. He drew up a play to get Ross Neltner open underneath, and Foster found him for an easy lay-up to just nine seconds into the final half.

That set the tone for the rest of the game, as the Commodore offense scored 48 second-half points with 12 assists and just six turnovers.

Afterwards, Neltner seemed as caught up in the day as the hundreds of Vandy students who stormed the floor to celebrate knocking off the defending national champions.

"I'm so wrapped up in emotion right now, it's hard to explain," said Neltner, who added 15 points and a team-high six rebounds. "This is definitely going to be one game that we'll remember.

"Our whole team, the fans, the program. It's great to knock off the No. 1 team. They've won 17 in a row."

The Commodores, who denied the Gators an opportunity to clench the Southeastern Conference's regular-season title, took sole possession of second in the Eastern Division after Alabama's defeat of Kentucky.

Vandy travels to Mississippi State on Wednesday before returning home against No. 18 Kentucky next Sunday.




 

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