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SEC Notebook

February 4, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

Southeastern Conference Notebook

by Rainer Sabin

Once considered a doormat by fans and sportswriters alike, Vanderbilt (10-8, 3-4 SEC) has emerged as a team that is not only competitive, but also dangerous. The Commodores, who are led by senior forward Matt Frieje, knocked off No. 15 Georgia and Ole Miss in Nashville last week as they moved out of the basement of the SEC East standings. Although Vanderbilt’s sudden rise from the bottom was not unexpected, it came at a time when the Commodores had been struggling on the offensive end and a resembled a sieve defensively.

Before winning two consecutive games, Vanderbilt had lost three straight to Kentucky, Florida, and in-state rival Tennessee. The losing streak and, in particular, the defeat to the Volunteers, prompted Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to offer some negative comments on the state of his team.

But Stallings’ downtrodden demeanor quickly changed as Frieje began to heat up and ignite the Commodores. The senior forward, who is currently the league’s third leading scorer, tallied a career-high 31 points in a 94-91 victory over the Bulldogs Wednesday night as he converted five of the eight three-point shots he attempted. His stellar shooting contributed to Vanderbilt’s robust 57 percent field goal percentage at Memorial Gym, where visiting teams are now hard-pressed to earn a victory.

But Frieje, who garnered SEC Player of the Week honors, wasn’t finished when Georgia left town. Last Saturday, he scored 20 points, as Vanderbilt converted 52.2 percent of their shots against the SEC’s best defense in a 76-68 victory over Ole Miss (12-6, 3-4 SEC). The Rebels, who had not allowed an opponent to score 70 points all season, were unable to counteract the Commodores’ offense, which has suddenly become a force to be reckoned with in the SEC.

The Commodores’ potent attack could be the basis of a late-season run for a team whose postseason tournament aspirations were slowly vanishing only a week ago. “We’re coming off a good week for us,” Stallings said at an SEC news conference. “We’re happy to put back-to-back games together and get two wins.” Because of the Commodores’ recent surge, a trip to the “Big Dance” has become a possibility. What a difference a week makes.

Florida is Hot, Hot, Hot

Perhaps the hottest team in the nation resides in Gainesville right now. The Gators (18-2, 7-0 SEC), who defeated Arkansas (6-11, 1-5 SEC) 77-66 last Saturday, have won 14 consecutive games and have climbed the rankings in recent weeks. Coach Billy Donovan has finally assembled a team that can do it all-score inside, shoot well from beyond the perimeter, play strong interior defense, and lock down opponents in a full-court trap.

With a pair of freshmen guards, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, Donovan has more offensive options at his disposal than any other team in the conference. Teamed with senior forward Matt Bonner and sophomore forward David Lee, they form a lethal inside-outside combination. Against Arkansas, Roberson scored a team-high 16 points, while Bonner and Lee each contributed 13. Nevertheless, Roberson and Florida’s frontcourt were outshined by Arkansas freshman guard Jonathon Modica. Modica scored 26 points and converted five of six shots from behind the arc as the Razorbacks prevented the game from becoming a blowout.

Bama Rolls, LSU Collapses Again

Both Alabama (13-5, 3-4 SEC) and LSU (12-7, 1-6 SEC) needed a victory. But only one team would get what it wanted. In a match-up pitting two struggling teams enduring freefalls in the SEC West standings, Alabama and LSU met in Tuscaloosa Saturday to determine who would escape from the quicksand first.

In forty minutes, Alabama soon found itself on solid ground as it pulled out a 75-66 victory and broke a three-game losing streak. Meanwhile, LSU was left gasping for air after dropping its fifth consecutive game and falling to 1-6 in SEC play. Feeling the impact of forward Jaime Lloreda’s suspension, which resulted from an incident in LSU’s 70-53 loss to the Florida Gators, the Tigers were unable to mount a comeback after falling behind by 18 points.

Alabama point guard Mo Williams, who had been ineffective in recent games, scored 27 points. Forward Erwin Dudley added 14 points and nine rebounds, as the Crimson Tide put forth an impressive performance in the wake of a dismal 63-46 loss to Kentucky ten days ago. “I just like how we played (against LSU),” Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. “We played a lot more aggressive. In the previous game against Kentucky, we played tentative, and that’s not how you want to play.”

Auburn Losing its Bite

Two weeks ago, Auburn (15-5, 4-3 SEC) was the darling of the SEC. Now, the Tigers are just one of the many inconsistent teams in the conference. Auburn, which had won its first four games against SEC opponents, dropped its third straight Saturday to Tennessee (11-6, 4-3 SEC) 60-57 on the plains of Alabama. Point guard Marquis Daniels tried to send the game into overtime with a three-point attempt at the buzzer. But it missed, and the Tigers continued its tailspin. “I am disappointed and it all falls on my shoulders,” Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. “Some of it has to do with the week off. Some of it has to do with losing to Kentucky and Georgia while playing well. We need to do a better job.”

The Volunteers, who led the entire forty minutes, were powered by Ron Slay. The senior center, who is second in the league in scoring with a 19.2 points per game average, tallied 21 points in the win and continued his dominating season in a league that features several outstanding frontcourt players.

Slay’s performance helped Tennessee move towards its goal of a postseason appearance and gives the Volunteers the inside track in grabbing what may be the seventh invitation handed to an SEC team by the NCAA selection committee for the upcoming tournament.

Georgia wins Battle of Bulldogs

Georgia (13-5, 5-2 SEC) and Mississippi State (13-5, 3-4 SEC) have both traveled a rocky road this season. That didn’t change Saturday. Georgia, which had lost to Vanderbilt earlier in the week, beat Mississippi State 67-63 Saturday in Athens, as Ezra Williams nailed three straight three-pointers in the closing minutes to complete a comeback from a 5-point deficit.

Mississippi State, which was savoring its one-point victory over in-state rival Ole Miss Wednesday night, was unable to continue its two-game winning streak despite leading 59-54 with 3:50 remaining. It was just the latest setback in a season of disappointments for Mississippi State-a team expected to be one of the dominant forces in the conference.

Fourteen points by forward Mario Austin and thirteen by guard Timmy Bowers were not enough to stave of the Peach State Bulldogs, who received 17 from Williams, 16 from forward Chris Daniels, and 13 from forward Steve Thomas.

Cat Scratch Fever Continues

No distractions. Just wins. After last year’s tumultuous campaign that was highlighted by altercations between teammates and off-the-court incidents, Kentucky (16-3, 6-0 SEC) is enjoying a successful season without the disruptions. The Wildcats won their tenth straight game Saturday, disposing of South Carolina 87-69 in Columbia. Forward Marquis Estill scored 18 points and Keith Bogans added 16 in a victory that was never much in doubt.

Down 57-32 at halftime, South Carolina (7-10, 1-6 SEC) was faced with an insurmountable deficit and lost its fifth consecutive game. The Gamecocks were unable to counter Kentucky’s onslaught in the first period, as the Wildcats shot 57 percent against an overmatched South Carolina squad.

As the deficit swelled, South Carolina struggled to find an answer. It didn’t come up with one. As a result, Kentucky extended its longest winning streak since the 1998 championship season, when it won 13 straight. “We’re coming off a good win at South Carolina,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “I thought we played a really good team down there. Hopefully it gave us some momentum. Now we have to play a really tough Florida team.” The Wildcats face the Gators Wednesday in perhaps the best match-up of the conference season thus far.


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