March 17, 2007
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Derrick Byars released five years of frustration on Washington State in the second half. He hit five 3-pointers, blocked a critical shot and repeatedly kept Vanderbilt alive in a double-overtime thriller.
The SEC's player of the year wasn't ready to end his career at Arco Arena - even when time, foul trouble and the Cougars' vaunted defense were lined up against him.
And Byars made the plays to keep his Commodores in the spotlight for at least a few more days.
Byars scored 27 points, Shan Foster added 20 and Vanderbilt took control in the second overtime, beating Washington State 78-74 on Saturday in a dynamite second-round game in the East Regional.
"Considering the stage, this was the best game I've played," Byars said. "It's something you visualize before the game. I saw myself making shots, and those shots went in in the second half."
Alex Gordon scored 12 points and center Ted Skuchas opened the second OT with his first four points of the game for sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (22-11), which is headed to the round of 16 for the first time since 2004 - and just the fourth time in 20 seasons.
Byars and Foster, the similar swingmen who led the Commodores' surprising surge this season, embraced at midcourt after Washington State's last gasp. Byars transferred to Vanderbilt in 2004 after two years at Virginia, then spent last summer obsessively working out in an effort to elevate his game to the level it reached against the Cougars.
"We played good defense on (Byars), but what can you do when he's making shots like that?" Washington State's Derrick Low asked.
Low scored 20 points for the third-seeded Cougars (26-8), whose remarkable turnaround season ended in a game filled with outstanding defense and gutsy shots - but rookie coach Tony Bennett's team couldn't get one last break.
"That was one of the best college basketball games I've ever been involved in," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "And as happy as I am for our team, my heart goes out to Tony Bennett and the Washington State players, because neither team deserved to lose that game."
Byars was voted the SEC's top player by the league's coaches, but he wasn't well known outside the Deep South until this weekend. He hit four 3-pointers in the second half and one more in the first overtime, then kept the Commodores alive with a stunning blocked shot late in the first OT - just his fourth blocked shot all season, and with his left hand, no less.
And he did it all while playing with four fouls since the final 3 minutes of regulation.
"Derrick is one of the best players in the country," said teammate Dan Cage, who scored 11 points. "He does it inside, outside, offensively, defensively. I just get all these images of Derrick making all these winning plays."
The rest of the nation has that image now - and Byars might have a few more tricks in store next week in East Rutherford, N.J.
Foster, the star of Vandy's opening-round win over George Washington, shook off a slow start to score six points in the overtimes. He made the Commodores' final fast-break bucket when the 6-foot-11 Skuchas got the ball upcourt while delicately dancing on the sideline to avoid going out of bounds.
The Vanderbilt players hugged, screamed and pointed toward a small cheering section at Arco Arena after the buzzer, while Foster pointed skyward, saying, "I told you!"
Both schools are neophytes in their sport's biggest showcase: Washington State had made the tournament just three previous times since 1941. The Commodores, whose success in the SEC was almost as surprising as Washington State's in the Pac-10, had just eight prior tournament appearances in their history - none lasting longer than three games.
Fittingly for two teams that reached this point with defense, a blocked shot figured in the final moments of regulation and the first overtime. Ivory Clark rejected Byars' layup attempt from behind with 25 seconds left in the second half - but teammate Daven Harmeling then missed a 3-pointer just before the buzzer.
"(Byars) is a beast," Clark said. "He has my full respect. I wasn't able to be as aggressive in the second half. He really hit some tough shots."
After Low tied it at 69 in the first overtime on a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left, Taylor Rochestie stole Vanderbilt's late inbounds pass and drove the length of the court. But Byars came from behind to swat the guard's layup attempt.
"I just didn't want him to get it up on the rim," Byars said with a shrug.
Bennett made more of the unorthodox decisions that have become standard for the Cougs, tinkering with his starting lineup from Thursday's win over Oral Roberts. He also got five points from Chris Matthews, who hadn't scored since Feb. 3.
The Commodores hit eight 3-pointers in the second half - and they also matched Washington State's defense, holding Cougars guard Kyle Weaver to five points, tying his season low.