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January 27, 2007NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Vanderbilt has proven it can win against ranked opponents, and when it hits 3-pointers. Those games against unranked teams, and when the long ball is not falling, have been another matter.
Saturday, the Commodores (15-6, 5-2) proved they could win away from the spotlight and when the 3-pointers don't fall, either. Vandy hit just 2-of-9 from behind the arc in the second half, but used clutch free throw shooting and key defensive stops in a 85-80 win over unranked Ole Miss (13-8, 2-5) before 11,812 fans at Memorial Gym.
Vanderbilt hit seven-of-eight free throws in the game's final 2:22. The Rebels outscored Vandy 51-41 in the second period and erased what had been a 16-point VU lead.
"We can get it done without the 3-point ball," said senior Derrick Byars, who led Vandy with 19 points. "That's our strength, but when it comes to crunch times, we're getting layups or free throws."
The Commodores jumped out to a 44-29 halftime lead, and led the entire half with the exception of a brief 4-2 Rebel advantage.
Nine Commodores hit field goals, and Vandy shot 63 percent as a team during the half.
But Ole Miss stormed out of the locker room, scoring 31 points in the half's first 9:27, and took the lead when Clarence Sanders' 3 from the left corner gave the Rebels a 61-60 lead.
The game would stay tight the rest of the way.
Vandy took a 76-72 lead on Byars' layup from Ross Neltner, but back-to-back baskets by the Rebels' Todd Abernethy and Bam Doyne tied the game.
But Neltner hit both ends of a one-and-one at the 2:22 mark, and Vandy never trailed again. Later, the junior center added a key put-back of an Alex Gordon blocked layup for an 80-76 lead.
Ole Miss's Kenny Williams hit two clutch layups for the Rebels down the stretch, but the Commodores simply needed to hit their foul shots down the stretch to win, and they did. Gordon added two free throws, and Dan Cage hit three-of-four in the final two minutes to seal victory.
"I thought we did a much better job defensively in the first half. They had their way with us in the second half and fortunately, we got some key stops going down the stretch and some key rebounds, and we did a great job at the foul line, and we were able to get the victory," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings.
Cage (18 points), Shan Foster(14) and Neltner (10) helped Byars shoulder the scoring burden.
Ole Miss had five players score in double-figures, led by 22 from Bam Doyne. Fifteen of Doyne's points came in the second half.
The Commodores have won five straight against ranked opponents, but had lost to the only two unranked Southeastern Conference teams it had faced until Saturday's victory.
"It's a competitive league. Anybody can beat anybody," said Cage. We've proven we're a team that everybody across the country can look at and say, 'Those guys can beat anybody, but they can also get beat by anybody.'
"Ole Miss was definitely capable of beating us tonight, we were just able to make some plays down the stretch. Coach said this was an important win, if not the most important win of our season."
The four straight SEC wins represent the longest streak by a Vandy team since the 1996-97 team won five in a row.
The Commodores, who received votes in both the AP and Coaches' polls last week, could be ranked for the first time since the 2003-04 season when the polls are released within the next two days.
Vandy will put its win streak against ranked opponents on the line Wednesday, travelling to face No. 1 Florida in Gainesville next.