'Pack works its way past La.-Lafayette

`Blue-collar' effort propels N.C. State to 61-52 victory

Vanderbilt quiets doubters

Ncaa Regional Phoenix

March 20, 2004|By Jeff Robbins and Jeff Darlington | Jeff Robbins and Jeff Darlington,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Whoever puts together North Carolina State highlight reels might as well cast aside the tape the Wolfpack compiled yesterday in its first-round NCAA tournament game at TD Waterhouse Centre.

The Wolfpack provided no jaw-dropping dunks and no flashy passes. But the no-frills style did yield a 61-52 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette.

"We really don't try to set any trends or do anything like that," said N.C. State senior Marcus Melvin, who scored a game-high 20 points. "We just do what we do. We work hard throughout the year and that's how we play. We're just blue-collar."

That workmanlike approach -- and woefully inept outside shooting by the Ragin' Cajuns -- propelled the third-seeded Wolfpack (21-9) into the tournament's second round for the second time in three years.

Neither team provided many electrifying moments. They combined for six fast-break points, and each made five three-pointers.

"It may not have been pretty, but we got a win," said Julius Hodge, who scored 14 points and added 10 rebounds for the Wolfpack. "Hopefully, next game can be pretty and we can advance."

Playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2000, 14th-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette (20-9) never quite found its rhythm.

Though the teams changed leads five times during the first half, Louisiana-Lafayette endured a 13-minute span without making a field goal. When the stretch began, midway through the first half, the Ragin' Cajuns led 16-13. When it ended, they trailed 34-28.

The Ragin' Cajuns, who averaged more than eight three-pointers per game over their previous 28 games, went 5-for-22 from three-point range.

N.C. State shot 36.7 percent from the field, but made 20 of its 24 foul shots.

"I was really proud of the way our guys found a way to grind it out on a night when we really didn't get extra points for artistic beauty," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek.

Vanderbilt 71, Western Michigan 58: For the Commodores, it was an unlikely way to win. Then again, if you believed the oddsmakers, a win of any kind would have been unlikely.

Even with the way the game turned out -- the unexpected hero lifting the unexpected defensive standout -- only one question remained unanswered following sixth-seeded Vanderbilt's win against Western Michigan.

Why was this so unexpected? "I feel like our backs were against the wall, and people were doubting us," said Commodores guard Russell Lakey, referring to their underdog role despite a better seed than the 11th-seeded Broncos (26-5). "We made it a point of emphasis to make our stand."

Point taken. Creating a strong argument for its legitimacy, Vanderbilt (22-9) knocked down seven three-pointers in the second half, sparking the program's first tournament win since 1993.

So what was so different about the way Vanderbilt advanced to tomorrow's game against N.C. State? For starters, Matt Freije, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer who contributed just four points in the first half, was more effective on defense than on offense. And Mario Moore went 7-for-7 with 18 points in the second half.

Moore finished with a career-high 26 points and six three-pointers.

Initially, the game seemed destined to live up to its upset potential. Western Michigan forward Mike Williams, the Mid-American Conference's Player of the Year, scored 16 points in the first half to give his team a 34-31 halftime lead.

Then came the adjustments. With 12:47 remaining, Corey Smith, who had been guarding Williams all game, picked up his fourth foul. For a replacement to cover the Broncos' star, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings chose Freije, who held Williams to two points for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Moore couldn't miss. The Commodores shot 63.6 percent from three-point range in the second half, while the Broncos were 1-for-12 on three-point shots.

Freije started the second half with a three from the top of the arc -- the first of seven from the team.

With 4:34 remaining, Moore hit a three-pointer that gave the Commodores a 58-53 lead -- enough of a margin to separate them for the rest of the game.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Regional highlights

Top performer: Vanderbilt's Mario Moore scored 26 points and hit all seven of his second-half shots.

Big surprise: The Commodores got their first NCAA win since 1993 despite 17 turnovers, an 18-8 deficit on offensive rebounds, and an 8-for-18 showing from the free-throw line.

He said it: "Many of the analysts and pundits said they wouldn't be surprised if N.C. State went home after the first round. We won the game, and our guys need to be able to celebrate." - N.C. State coach Herb Sendek

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