Festus Ezeli (AP/Mark Humphrey)
NASHVILLE--Redshirt junior Festus Ezeli scored a career-high 24 points and added 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season to help Vanderbilt hold off Belmont on Saturday afternoon in Memorial Gym, 85-76.
The Bruins came out with the same level of intensity and efficiency that helped them scare Tennessee in Knoxville back in October. Belmont led by as many as seven in the first half before a late Vanderbilt run in the final minutes cut the visitors’ lead to three at the break.
“They’re really good,” said Coach Kevin Stallings of the Bruins. “This was not a ‘They’re good for Belmont’—They’re good. And I’m not saying that because [Belmont Coach Rick Byrd] is my friend. They’re really good on both ends.
“If there’s a better team than them in that league (the Atlantic Sun), I’d like to see it. Don’t want to play it, but I’d like to see it.”
Belmont attacked the Vanderbilt defense with a balance the Commodores may not see again all year—nine Bruins had scored by halftime, yet none had more than six points. But ultimately, the Commodores looked to their 6-foot-11-inch, 255-pound center from Nigeria to tip the scales in the home team’s favor.
“He’s a kid that’s all in, who’s been all in ever since he came here,” said Stallings of Festus Ezeli. “And when I say that, just his attitude, his personality, he trusts the coaches, he always has trusted us, since the day he walked on campus he’s trusted us.
“It’s to his credit that he’s become what he’s become.”
Against two very capable Belmont big men in Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders, Ezeli finished with touch on offense and displayed the physicality on defense he has become known for on the way to one of the most complete performances of his career. After scoring seven points in the first half, Ezeli scored on Vanderbilt’s first possession of the second half and then hit five of his next eight free throws as the Commodores built a seven-point lead with over 12 minutes to play.
When he grabbed his tenth rebound of the game with the same authoritative strength with which he had grabbed the other nine, the crowd erupted in appreciation of how far Ezeli has come as a complete player and a threat in the Vanderbilt attack.
“Last year, I was kind of just a role player, and it’s good for me to say that my teammates depend on me more,” he said afterwards. “That’s good, because that’s why I’m here. I’m here to help them out, and if they can depend on me more, I’ll keep working and just try not to let them down.”
Ezeli’s free throw shooting, once a black mark on his basketball profile, has improved dramatically in the early stages of the 2010-2011 season. He made 10 of his 14 free throw attempts on Saturday and has upped his percentage from the line to 63.8% after shooting just 37.3% last season.
“I’m in the gym like four nights a week, so I’m still working on it,” he said of his success at the line. “I still missed some, so I have to keep working on that. But it’s good because I don’t want to be the player that they can just foul and do that, what is it, Hack-A-Shaq? Yeah, I don’t want to be like that at all.”
Forward Jeffery Taylor came out with a looseness that had been missing from his past two games, scoring six of the Commodores’ first eight points as Vanderbilt jumped out to an early five-point lead. Belmont suffered an uncharacteristically poor shooting night from behind the arc, hitting just seven of their 23 three-point attempts and missing on several first-half shots that would have put the Commodores in a deeper hole than the early seven-point margin that put the home crowd on edge for the rest of the afternoon.
“We weren’t really executing on offense,” said Taylor, who finished with 16 points. “We weren’t moving and cutting and screening like we’ve been doing in practice. So that’s still something we need to work on and get better at.”
After withstanding a tremendous road effort from its cross-town rival, Vanderbilt takes a five-game winning streak to Columbia, Missouri, on Wednesday night to take on the nationally-ranked Missouri Tigers.