By DAN GELSTON
AP Basketball Writer
November 22, 2010
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Festus Ezeli threw back his head and let out a big "Yeeeah!!!" that could be heard from the island to Nashville, Tenn.
Call Vanderbilt's win an upset because of North Carolina's inflated ranking -- just don't tell coach Kevin Stallings.
"Everyone's up in arms when Carolina loses," Stallings said. "Our team's not bad."
They proved it in Puerto Rico.
John Jenkins scored 16 points, and Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor each had 15 to lead Vanderbilt to a 72-65 win over reeling No. 8 North Carolina on Sunday night in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament.
The Commodores (3-1) beat a top-10 team for the first time since knocking off No. 1 Tennessee on Feb. 26, 2008.
The few hundred Vanderbilt fans who made the trip to Puerto Rico serenaded the Tar Heels (2-2) with chants of "Overrated!" For this year's Tar Heels, they may be right.
Coach Roy Williams insisted after losing to Minnesota on Friday that he didn't think anymore about last year's 17-loss debacle. He'll now be forced to answer more questions about the Carolina blue sky falling again.
"I don't feel anything like I felt last year," Williams said. "That's what I truly feel. That's what I can tell you."
Tyler Zeller had 20 points and 10 rebounds for North Carolina, and freshman Harrison Barnes rebounded from a poor performance to score 11.
"I believe it's better than last year," Zeller said. "It's something we've got to be able to change. I think we always wanted to win last year. I don't know if we were the smartest team at the end of the games last year. I think we're a lot smarter this year.
Outside of Zeller, the Tar Heels had no offensive threat inside or out. He made seven baskets, and no one else made more than four.
That wasn't a problem for the Commodores. Taylor and Ezeli were tough inside, with 16 rebounds and three blocked shots between them. Jenkins did his work from the free-throw line with a 10-for-12 effort that first built the lead, then helped Vanderbilt keep it for the win. The Commodores bounced back after losing in the final seconds to West Virginia on Friday.
When Ezeli subbed out in the final seconds, he ran to the bench and let out his scream.
"I just played my game," said Ezeli, who grabbed nine rebounds. "I'm big, I'm strong and Coach tells me to just use that to my advantage. Stop fouling so much. That's what I did."
The Tar Heels had made a last gasp effort for the win when they got the ball inside to Zeller, who got the basket and the foul. Vanderbilt forward Andre Walker fouled out on the play and Zeller made the free throw to make it 59-57.
It wasn't enough.
Vanderbilt fattened the lead from the free-throw line and Taylor slid down the baseline for a bank-layup and a 65-58 lead. Lance Goulbourne slammed home a 3-point miss for a seven-point lead with 1:20 left.
The what was all for North Carolina.
"What I'm looking for is five guys that play together as one," Williams said.
After trailing by 10 at the break, the Tar Heels started the second half in attack mode and trimmed the deficit to one. Ezeli pushed them back with a sweet spin move in the paint for a three-point play that got the lead back to four.
The Tar Heels wasted several chances to score off turnovers -- they got nothing off a Zeller blocked shot or a Leslie McDonald steal at midcourt -- that could have inched them closer to the lead or put them ahead.
Try as they could, the Commodores couldn't hold down the charging Tar Heels completely.
Brad Tinsley was whistled for an intentional offensive foul for clocking McDonald in the face. When the refs went to check a replay, Stallings called his team over and basically told them to snap out of it.
"That's what we're waiting for! We're just waiting for the next bad thing to happen!"
They didn't wait long.
McDonald made one of his two free throws, then hit a jumper off his own offensive rebound for a 48-47 lead.
The Commodores got sloppy and Carolina pounced. Zeller dunked off Vanderbilt's 20th turnover of the game -- and there was still 10 minutes left to play.
Ten minutes was plenty of time for Vanderbilt.
The Commodores went ahead on free throws and Ezeli dunked like he wanted to destroy the rim for a 57-51 lead.
It was an emotional win for Stallings, who was an assistant for Williams at Kansas from 1989-1993 when the Jayhawks went to two Final Fours.
"I'm very, very happy for my team, but, this (win) feels not as good as the rest of them in a way for me personally," Stallings said.
Barnes, who went 0 for 12 against Minnesota, wasted no time scoring in this one, hitting a jumper on the first possession of the game. Barnes, a preseason All-America team pick as a freshman, scored 19 points in the first half against Hofstra on Thursday and hadn't made a bucket again.
Barnes was stuffed by Taylor on a one-handed baseline dunk early in the game. It was the first sign that Vanderbilt was going to be tough under the basket. They wouldn't give the Tar Heels any room underneath, blocking four shots and grabbing 13 defensive rebounds.
Led by Taylor and Jenkins (17 points), the Commodores shot 64 percent (14 of 22) in the first half.
"I felt we could win the tournament when we came down here," Stallings said. "We could have at least been playing for a championship."
Instead, a sparkling win over the Tar Heels will have to do.