Head coach Kevin Stallings wasn’t in the mood to discuss the number of mental errors 18th-ranked Vanderbilt committed down the stretch of a sweat-inducing 75-72 victory over Mississippi State.
John Jenkins didn’t dribble the clock out by the basket with a one-point lead and seven seconds left and got an earful about it. The Commodores were supposed to foul with a three-point lead after Jenkins hit two clutch free throws and didn’t, allowing Dee Bost to get off a 3-point try. And the Bulldogs got one more chance to tie when Lance Goulbourne fouled Romero Osby trying to dunk with a second remaining.
“That was a little more interesting than we wanted it be,” Stallings said. “Our end-of-game execution was really poor. (Not fouling while up three) was one of about 11 things that we didn’t do right. The other 10, don’t ask me what they were, because I don’t really want to go into them all.”
Osby missed his first free throw, however, and after missing the second on purpose the Bulldogs couldn’t get a 3-point shot off before time expired. Relief permeated the fans at Memorial Gym, where just minutes earlier it seemed Vanderbilt would cruise to its eighth straight victory over Southeastern Conference West teams dating to last season.
The Commodores were up 71-57 with 4:00 remaining after a dunk by Festus Ezeli, but that was the last field goal they would make. Barry Stewart had a three-point play after hitting a lay-up and getting fouled, stole the ball from A.J. Ogilvy and hit a lay-up moments later, and then nailed a 3-pointer after a Vanderbilt miss, an eight-point barrage in just 40 seconds.
The Bulldogs kept chipping away and a Bost 3-pointer from the right corner cut the Commodore lead to one point with 28 seconds remaining. Vanderbilt dribbled the clock out and found Jenkins by the basket, who took a shot rather than dribble more and was fouled with 6.8 seconds remaining to give the Bulldogs another chance.
“Freshman mistake, that won’t happen again,” Jenkins said.
What wasn’t very freshman-like was stepping up and coolly hitting two huge free throws.
“I knew I was going to (make them),” Jenkins shrugged.
But after getting taken to the woodshed by Kentucky in a 85-72 loss on Saturday, the Commodores (17-4, 6-1) were still plenty happy to knock off the West division-leading Bulldogs (16-6, 4-3).
Jermaine Beal continued his outstanding play by leading the team in scoring for the third consecutive game with 17 points, and Ogilvy overcame first-half foul trouble to add 16 points in just 21 minutes of playing time. Jenkins had 12, none bigger than his two free throws to make the Bulldogs try a desperation shot.
“A win is a win,” Beal said. “It counts, ugly or pretty. It still goes down as a win.”
The first 36 minutes of the game were fine.
The Commodores had emphasized stopping Mississippi State’s conference-best 3-point shooting percentage in practice and frustrated the Bulldogs into 9-34 shooting (26.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Vanderbilt was a highly efficient 6-11 (54.5 percent) in comparison, including two more big 3’s from Jenkins, who was closely shadowed all night and made the most of his opportunities.
“We thought the two biggest things were transition and contesting the 3’s,” Stallings said. “I was really excited about how we played defensively tonight. If we can take that going forward, that would be a good thing.”
Also, Vanderbilt led at halftime for only the second time in seven conference games, taking a 38-31 advantage into intermission and taking double-digit leads six times in the second half. After getting routed on the boards in Lexington, the Commodores tied the Bulldogs with 40 rebounds apiece.
Mississippi State kept weathering the storm, but Vanderbilt never relinquished the lead over the final 23 minutes, a huge win to keep pace with the East-leading Wildcats.
“We competed hard, we fought hard,” Stallings said. “We made a number of poor decisions and wrong plays (at the end), but we beat a good basketball team.”