Sophomore guard John Jenkins scored 32 points on Saturday to lead Vanderbilt to a 81-77 victory over Kentucky in front of a capacity crowd at Memorial Gymnasium. Brad Tinsley and Festus Ezeli each hit key free throws in the final minute to ice the game in the face of a frantic Wildcat rally.
The Commodores won their third straight game and moved to 6-4 in SEC play thanks in large part to the performance of Jenkins, who overcame the tenacity of top Kentucky defender DeAndre Liggins and the lingering pain of a sprained shoulder sustained a few games ago to hit six three-pointers and lead all scorers with 32 points on 11-for-17 shooting.
“John’s really a good team guy, and that’s what makes it fun to see him have this success,” said head coach Kevin Stallings after the game. “If he was a selfish guy and didn’t care about his teammates and didn’t care about the team, a guy with his talent, that can become a drain, but he’s just the opposite. He’s a great teammate and a great kid, very coachable and a terrific player.”
Jenkins scored 18 of his points in the second half, including 10 of Vanderbilt’s 14 points in a crucial four-minute stretch in which the Commodores turned a two-point deficit into a six-point lead with 2:18 left to play in the game.
“It gets everybody going,” said center Festus Ezeli of Jenkins’s hot shooting. “When John gets going, it gets the crowd going, gets the bench going, you just want to give him the ball because he can’t miss. I’ll just go to the boards.”
Jenkins also stepped up on the defensive end as he and his teammates tried to contain Wildcat forward Terrence Jones, who led his team with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting.
“He’s a great player, especially being a freshman,” Jenkins said of Jones. “He did a great job on the boards getting easy points, so I guess if we had lost we would’ve been hitting our heads over that 25 points he had, but right now we’re feeling really good.”
“He’s, and I mean this in the most complimentary way I can say it, he’s a beast,” said Stallings, who was forced to adjust his defensive assignments multiple times throughout the game as Jones forced his key defenders into foul trouble. “He’s got good skills, he can step out and make threes, he’s got good timing inside, he’s an incredible athlete, he’s got an unbelievable body. You go double-team, he’ll throw it across the floor. We knew he was going to be a handful coming into the game, but he’s not the only guy who’s a handful on that team.”
Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight scored 20 points in 38 minutes of playing time and hit a three that cut the Vanderbilt lead to two with 40 seconds left to play. The freshman played a large role in the visitors’ fast start, scoring 12 of those 20 points in the first half. The Wildcats did not trail until the 5:45 mark of the first half.
The Vanderbilt bench played a large part in keeping Kentucky close in the opening minutes. Freshman Rod Odom hit the jumper that gave the Commodores their first lead, and freshman Kyle Fuller stole the ball from Brandon Knight to set up a layup by Jenkins less than 30 seconds before the break. Odom, Fuller and forward Steve Tchiengang were 4-of-6 from three-point range and combined for 20 points off the bench.
“We were in foul trouble the whole night, and we had to go to lineups that we weren’t used to playing and we don’t play together hardly at all and practice with very often, and those guys really stepped up and played great,” said Stallings. “Our bench was phenomenal. Fuller, Odom and Tchiengang, those guys were as good as we could’ve hoped for.”
The win completed a perfect three-game homestand for Vanderbilt, who heads to Athens on Wednesday to take on the Georgia Bulldogs.