NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) John Jenkins scored 21 points and Vanderbilt beat South Carolina 59-48…
Vanderbilt 84, Middle Tennessee 77
The Commodores (16-5) handed Middle Tennessee (20-3) its first loss since Dec. 7. They outrebounded the Blue Raiders 28-22 and hit 24 free throws in 30 attempts to Middle Tennessee's 16 of 22.
Festus Ezeli scored a season-high 21 points and sank a career-best 11 free throws for Vanderbilt. Jeffery Taylor added 17 points and Lance Goulbourne had 11.
Laron Dendy led Middle Tennessee with a career-high 22 points. JT Sulton had 12 points before fouling out, and Bruce Massey and Marcos Knight each had 10.
Both teams came in streaking, with Middle Tennessee's streak tied for third-longest in the nation. The Blue Raiders, whose campus is about 40 miles southeast of Nashville, have never won at Memorial Gym in a series Vandy now leads 29-4, but they certainly came close in this game.
The teams swapped the lead eight times with 10 ties, and Vanderbilt was up 44-39 at halftime. Middle Tennessee led by as much as eight in the first half, taking advantage of a cold-shooting start by Vanderbilt, and the Commodores never led by more than six as the teams went back and forth most of the second half.
Jenkins, the SEC's leading scorer, took charge for Vanderbilt late. He put Vandy ahead three times on buckets, the last for good at 78-76 with 1:45 remaining as he drove the baseline for a layup off a bounce pass from Brad Tinsley.
Then Goulbourne stole a bad pass by Dendy with the shot clock ticking down, and Ezeli scored on a layup for an 80-76 lead that was the biggest by either team since nearly midway through the half. Tinsley, who sat out nearly nine minutes after picking up his fourth foul with 15:32 left, added a pair of free throws, and Goulbourne made two more for the final margin.
It was a nice finish for the Commodores, who scored the first five points, then wound up hitting four of their first 16 shots.
Middle Tennessee had no problems shooting in Memorial Gym with the benches on the end lines. The Blue Raiders shot 57.4 percent (27 of 47) for the game and were hotter in the first half. Sulton dunked and let out a big scream after drawing a foul on a bucket that gave the Blue Raiders their biggest lead at 26-18 with 3:23 left.
Jenkins and Taylor, two of the SEC's top three scorers, struggled early. Jenkins hit only one of his first six shots, while Taylor was 2 of 7. Ezeli carried the Commodores by scoring 13 first-half points and hitting all seven attempts at the free throw line.
Middle Tennessee led 33-28 when Sulton went down hard after grabbing a defensive rebound and had to be helped to the bench with 5:01 left. Dendy was hurt a couple of seconds later and went to the locker room with a towel to his forehead. He didn't return until 1:30 remained, and Vandy went on an 11-2 run, capped by a bucket by Goulbourne.
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