By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Alabama guard Collin Sexton carried a touted reputation into Tuesday’s game against Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym.
The Crimson Tide’s vaunted freshman entered the week as the SEC’s second-leading scorer at 20.1 points per game. In fact, Sexton’s penchant for buckets was already well documented: Sexton had set an Alabama freshman record earlier in the year with a 40-point outing against Minnesota.
But on Tuesday, it was Vanderbilt’s Saben Lee who stood a bit taller in a battle of freshmen.
“I’m a competitive player,” Lee said. “I feel like when expectations get high, I want to meet them.”
Lee, Vanderbilt’s first-year guard, continued his strong freshman campaign in standing stood toe-to-toe with Alabama’s Sexton. Lee finished with a team-high 23 points as Sexton rang up 24 points of his own. But Lee’s Commodores earned the bragging rights in a thrilling 76-75 victory over the Crimson Tide at Memorial.
Lee’s performance helped Vanderbilt notch its first SEC victory and its biggest win of the young conference season. Following several tight losses, Lee said he enjoyed helping his Dores win the day.
“It feels really good,” Lee said. “Coming down through the final minutes, we wanted to just remind ourselves about previous games that we couldn’t finish out. This was a really big one for us. We can get some momentum going forward.”
It didn’t take long for Lee to make an impact for Vanderbilt. With the score tied 31-31, Lee reeled off the Dores’ final 12 points of the first half. That red-hot stretch included a pair of consecutive 3-pointers that lifted Vanderbilt to a 43-33 lead at halftime.
CLEANING THE GLASS: Breaking down Vanderbilt's win over Alabama
Lee kept his foot on the gas in the second half, as well. His layup with 1:41 to play capped a run of four straight points by the freshman and pushed Vanderbilt ahead, 74-65. The Phoenix, Ariz. native finished 7-14 from the floor.
A former four-star signee, Lee has evolved into a reliable presence for Vanderbilt. He has earned 10 starts while the Commodores have flipped between several different starting lineups. Head coach Bryce Drew said Lee’s basketball IQ and speed off the dribble separate him in the locker room.
“He gives us something different than some of our other guys,” Drew said. “He gives us that burst of speed where he can get by his man and get to the rim. There were some times they played really good defense, the shot clock was getting down and he had the ability to hit a gap and get fouled or be able to finish.”
Lee’s second 20-point game of the season came at the perfect time for Vanderbilt. Following a 5-8 start, the Commodores scored their first top-50 win of the year by beating the Crimson Tide. They next travel to South Carolina on Saturday (5:45 p.m. CT on SEC Network) before hosting Tennessee and Kentucky at home. With momentum, Vanderbilt could turn things around in SEC play.
For that to happen, expect Lee to remain a big piece of the puzzle – and garner a spotlight of his own.
“He’s been working everyday,” Drew said. “He comes in nearly everyday and works on his game, his 3-point shooting and his finishing. The team knows how hard he works.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.