NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Dan Cage had given his teammates little reason to pass him the ball through the first 22 minutes. Then Georgia coach Dennis Felton was given a technical for protesting a foul.
That was all the Vanderbilt senior needed.
Cage hit the two free throws and finished with 19 points—all in the second half—and Derrick Byars had a team-high 20 points to help No. 24 Vanderbilt hold off Georgia 66-61 Saturday night for the Commodores’ fifth victory in six games.
“The rule of thumb with shooters is you never want them to see a couple go down,” said Cage, who had started 0-of-7, including his first three of the second half.
“I was completely out of rhythm. I wasn’t getting my feet set and getting my legs under me. I might as well as had a Georgia Bulldog jersey on because I was killing us. Luckily, I was able to hit a couple free throws and get going a bit and in the end be able to do some things to help us win.”
He finished the game hitting four of his final five shots and was 7-of-8 at the free throw line.
“He’s an exceptional shooter, really a machine shooting the ball,” Felton said. “He hit four in the second half, and I’m sure that at least three were not of the easy variety and were heavily contested.”
Vanderbilt (16-7, 6-3) broke a tie with Georgia (13-8, 5-4) to take sole possession of third in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division with their 10th straight home victory. This also was their fourth straight SEC home win—a first in coach Kevin Stallings’ eight seasons.
Stallings said his Commodores are pretty confident in each other right now.
“In the stretch there were we had to get that ball in bounds in the late-game situation, I thought we did pretty well and did a nice job of executing and doing what we needed to do then. But it was an extremely hard-fought game,” he said.
The Commodores had their problems shooting at times, but managed to bounce back from a 74-64 loss at top-ranked Florida on Wednesday night.
They didn’t make it easy on themselves by nearly blowing a 13-point lead in the second half, but they went 4-for-6 from the free throw line in the final 14.2 seconds to seal the victory.
Cage, who missed his first seven shots, got himself going by hitting two free throws in the opening minutes of the second half.
Takais Brown led Georgia with 14 points, Mike Mercer added 13 and Sundiata Gaines 12.
The Bulldogs now have lost three of their last five, including two straight. Dave Bliss went scoreless after helping Georgia pull out an 85-73 victory in Athens over Vanderbilt on Jan. 10 with 10 points.
He wasn’t the only one.
Levi Stukes, who had been averaging 12.3 points for Georgia, was scoreless until hitting his first bucket with 7:08 left. That helped Georgia’s career 3-point shooter key a 10-4 run with three 3s, and a free throw by Gaines pulled the Bulldogs within 57-53 with 3:42 to go.
But Stukes didn’t score again. Mercer scored consecutive baskets that pulled Georgia within 62-59 with 51 seconds left. Jermaine Beal missed a shot after letting the shot clock tick down, and officials gave Vandy the ball back with 15.8 seconds left.
“We’ve been in this position a couple of times, and we’ve come back and won,” Brown said. “We never felt like the game was over until the horn sounded.”
That forced Georgia to foul, and Ross Neltner hit one of two free throws. Cage hit three of four in helping Vandy improve to 48-13 in this series in Nashville.
Felton said he was very proud of his Bulldogs for working hard in the second half against a very hot team and giving themselves a chance to win.
“They had just enough tonight to hold us off,” he said.
The teams swapped the lead four times with three ties in the first half, and both Georgia and Vandy struggled to find the basket early, combining to hit 6-of-22 early. The Bulldogs were even colder from behind the arc, missing their first six 3s.
Byars, who has been averaging 19 points per game in SEC play, put Vandy ahead to stay by hitting 12 points in the final 11:17 for a 32-22 lead at halftime. When Gaines’ free throw pulled Georgia within 22-20, Byars hit a 3 and a short jumper to start a 10-2 run to finish the half.
That was as close as the Bulldogs would get the rest of the way.