ORLANDO, Fla.-- Believe it, Commodore fans-- Vanderbilt is headed to Phoenix for the Sweet 16.
Corey Smith completed a three-point play with 21 seconds to play, and Vanderbilt erased a 10-point deficit in the game's last 2:44 to defeat North Carolina State 75-73 Sunday at the TD Waterhouse Centre. The improbable win earned the Commodores (23-9) a date in the round of 16 in Phoenix, Ariz. next Thursday evening. Their opponent will be second-seeded Connecticut (29-6), which advanced Saturday with a 72-55 victory over DePaul.
"It's the most amazing feeling I've ever experienced before," said senior Matt Freije (right, AP photo by Chris O'Meara), who broke out of a five-game slump in a big way with 31 points. "I really did not want today to be my last day of basketball in college. I don't think I've been so drained after a game."
Vanderbilt did it in unforgettable fashion, and the comeback has to rank somewhere among the great ones in NCAA Tournament history. The Wolfpack had taken a 69-59 lead with just under three minutes to play on a putback by ACC Player of the Year Julius Hodge. But Hodge almost immediately afterwards fouled Freije on a 3-point attempt. It was Hodge's fifth foul, and Freije made all three free throws to cut the lead back to seven.
"Even though he didn't score a lot of points, he's their emotional leader," head coach Kevin Stallings said of Hodge. "He's the guy they're not used to playing without, and that was very important for us."
State answered with a score on a backdoor cut by Engin Atsur, but Freije quickly answered with a 3-pointer. After a Vanderbilt timeout and a North Carolina State timeout, Scott Hundley made perhaps the play of the game when he stole the ball in the backcourt and passed ahead to a full-speed Corey Smith. Marcus Melvin's foul on Smith was ruled intentional-- Smith made both foul shots, and Vandy got the ball back trailing 71-67.
Mario Moore, Vandy's hero of Friday, launched a long-range 3-pointer that cut the lead to 71-70. After a miss by State's Atsur, Freije gave Vandy the lead with another improbable shot, this time a 2-point jumper from the baseline with 0:54 left.
The Commodores fouled Ilian Evtimov with 0:34 remaining, and the 88-percent free throw shooter made a pair to put State ahead 73-72. But with 21 seconds left, Mario Moore hit Smith with a perfect backdoor bounce pass-- Smith skied for the layup, was fouled, and sank the free throw to put Vandy up by two.
"We were able to wait long enough for them to start over-defending it," Moore said of the backdoor play. "Corey made a great cut on them."
With the clock ticking down, pressed by an aggressive Commodore defense, the Wolfpack, with its go-to offensive player Hodge fouled out, was able to manage only a single weak desperation 3-point attempt by Atsur-- which got nowhere near the basket.
"I couldn't find an open shot," was all Atsur would say afterwards.
Freije finished with 31 points, while Moore added 17, Dawid Przybyszewski 13, and Smith 10. Russell Lakey registered 7 assists. Ilian Evtimov led the Wolfpack (20-10) with 25 points, and Atsur added 14.
The Commodores shot 19-of-21 from the free throw line, including 13-of-13 in the second half-- and would need every one of them.
Vanderbilt opened up a lead of 16-4 in the first half, and led 20-11 before State's Levi Watkins nailed 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions to tie the game. The Wolfpack grabbed its only first-half lead at 27-25 on a layup by Julius Hodge, but a trey by Matt Freije immediately gave Vandy the lead back. Three 3-pointers by Freije in the final five minutes of the half propelled the Dores to a 31-28 halftime lead.
The Wolfpack retook the lead at 44-43 with 13 minutes left in the game, and seemingly had the game in hand when a Marcus Melvin 3-pointer stretched the lead to 67-56. But Vanderbilt would close the game on a 19-7 run.
"The emotions I can't explain," said Matt Freije, who broke down into visible sobs of joy after the clock expired. "Being down 11 and coming back like that, I'm just so proud of everybody on the team for not giving up."
Vanderbilt had defeated MAC champion Western Michigan the previous Friday to advance to the Second Round, in a game in which the Commodores had been an underdog despite being seeded higher. Stallings continued to pound the theme that his team had been underestimated during the week by national pundits.
"I'm not one for blowing our horn, but if I'm not mistaken, there's only one team in the field of 65 that had beaten both a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed this season, and that was us," Stallings said, referring to victories over Kentucky and Mississippi State.
"We're not the best team in the country, but that's why they play the games. On any given night, anything can happen."
Vanderbilt advanced to play in the Sweet 16 for only the fifth time in school history, the third time since the NCAA Tournament was expanded to 64 teams, and the first time since 1993. Tipoff time for next Thursday's game will be set by CBS later in the week.