Vanderbilt coasts to victory over WKU, 82-62

Festus Ezeli (VM/Stan Jones)

NASHVILLE-- The box score would have you believe that Festus Ezeli came one missed free throw short of offensive perfection during Vanderbilt's 82-62 win over Western Kentucky on Wednesday night.

But after the game, head coach Kevin Stallings made it clear that he thought neither Ezeli nor any of his teammates deserved anything near the praise typical of a 20-point margin of victory.

"I didn't really care for how we played today," Stallings said. "I just didn't like it. I didn't like the lack of patience, the lack of screening and the lack of doing things like we practice and I have to do something."

Ezeli scored the first points of the game on a routine layup over Hilltopper forward Steffphon Pettigrew—on whom the 6-foot-11-inch redshirt junior center had a five-inch height advantage—and went on to shoot a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor the rest of the way, finishing with 14 points. He and the rest of Vanderbilt's taller players were met with little resistance down low from Western Kentucky's undersized interior defenders.

Both offenses struggled to find their rhythm in the opening minutes. Western Kentucky turned the ball over in each of its first four offensive possessions, but slow starts from Vanderbilt's shooters kept the visitors in the game. Neither team scored for a four-minute, 10-second stretch midway through the first half, and both teams had reached double digits in turnovers by halftime.

John Jenkins made five of his 10 three-point attempts on the way to leading all scorers with 21 points in a team-high 29 minutes of action. Wednesday's win was the sophomore guard's third consecutive game with over 20 points after similar hot shooting performances against Grambling State and Appalachian State.

Stallings recognized the importance of Jenkins's production on a night when the team's other big scorers struggled to get comfortable.

"If our team is going to be good, John and Jeff and Festus and Brad, those guys are going to be the ones carrying the load night after night on offense," he said. "John's a good player and John's really trying to play within himself. In the first half he would have scored a couple more baskets, but he didn't do a good job of getting his feet ready when the ball was on the way to him. He kind of let the ball eat him up and get on top of him before his footwork started, and if he had just gotten his feet ready to catch the pass, he would have made some more shots."

Forward Juan Pattillo led the Hilltoppers with 18 points and seven rebounds despite being frequently marked by the much taller Ezeli.

Ezeli's offensive contributions did not do enough to overshadow below-average totals in the defense and rebounding statistical categories he has become best known for filling up.

"Maybe I had no right, I just thought he was okay," said Stallings. "And that means he's gotten a lot better. But he didn't guard the ball, he had about two or three balls he should have blocked, he had about five he should have rebounded."

"I only had three rebounds, that's kind of bad, and I had zero in the second half," said Ezeli of his effort on the boards. "[Coach Stallings] made sure he let me know after the game. I definitely need to do better, especially because that's what I bring to the team."

Ultimately, Western Kentucky was never able to recover from a slow shooting start and a complete defensive performance from the home team. Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang disrupted Western Kentucky's drives to the basket with their height and physicality throughout the night and altered countless shots with their pressure, and none of the Hilltopper shooters could find his stroke from three-point range quickly enough to respond while the outcome was still in question.

For their next game, the Commodores welcome Belmont into Memorial Gym at 1:00 p.m. CST on Saturday, December 4.

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