Festus Ezeli says he is just physical by nature.
If that is the case, Vanderbilt’s starting center might need to tone his style down a bit because a trend, as coach Kevin Stallings put it, is starting to emerge.
Ezeli is a 6-foot-11, 255-pound force inside on both offense and defense for the Commodores, who host South Carolina (13-7, 4-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in the first of three straight home games. He averages 12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, which is fourth most in the Southeastern Conference.
He could be doing more if he was on the court longer. Because of fouls, Ezeli has been limited to just 24 minutes a game in SEC play. In seven league games, he has averaged four per contest and has fouled out in three straight, including Tuesday’s overtime loss to Florida.
“I need to be more aware of my surroundings, more aware of people around me and just try to stop fouling,” Ezeli, who had just five points against the Gators, said. “They need me on the court. I am just physical and that’s my nature and sometimes I get too physical.”
While he wouldn’t be specific, Stallings said he is “disenchanted” by several trends that are developing, but Ezeli’s foul trouble is clearly one of them.
No. 23 Vanderbilt (15-6, 3-4) is 1-3 when Ezeli fouls out. In all six of the Commodores’ losses, he has picked up at least three fouls. In three of those, he logged 21 minutes or less.
“Festus needs to play well for us to be a good team. He is one of our best players and he has had a very good year so far,” Stallings said. “What he is finding out is one of the toughest things in life: the more you give somebody, the more they want. The more you produce, the more is expected. With those expectations comes pressure and the need for consistency.
"This is the first time he has ever been in the situation to where ‘Oh gosh, they really expect and need me to do this or be that for the team.’ That is just something he is going to have to get used to and have to deal with and hopefully deal with successfully.”
The Commodores will need Ezeli inside against South Carolina’s Sam Muldrow. The 6-foot-9 forward victimized Vanderbilt nearly four weeks ago when he recorded just the second triple-double in school history (16 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks). Ezeli played just 21 minutes in that one and scored just seven points in another overtime loss.
“Somehow he has to stay out of foul trouble,” forward Jeffery Taylor said.
Stallings did defend his center, but he also said the pace of the fouls has to slow down.
“He has been the unfortunate recipient of some calls that haven’t been very good — quite frankly,” Stallings said. “Now, having said that, on two occasions recently he has come out of halftime with one foul and fouled out of the game and that is just a lack of discipline and a lack of awareness and concentration. That is the part that he has to control. That is the part maybe I can help him with. If he gets a bad call, he gets a bad call. But this thing of coming out of halftime and you have one foul and then you foul out of the game in seven, eight or 10 minutes of the second half that is ridiculous.”
• Two days after the fact, Stallings and Taylor were still sticking with the same reason the junior forward didn’t make his 21st start of the season when Vanderbilt played Florida.
When an ESPN reporter asked him about it during the game on Tuesday, Stallings said because the 6-foot-7 Taylor lost to him in a dunk contest. He stuck with that answer when asked again during his postgame radio interview and on Thursday, before practice.
“Coach got up on me,” Taylor said with a wide smile, adding that the dunk contest was held on a regulation-size basket. “It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it.”
All kidding aside, Taylor struggled against the Gators, going 2-for-12 from the field and scoring just seven points before fouling out in overtime.
“It was just a struggle. I couldn’t really get the ball in the basket,” Taylor, who is averaging 14.8 points, said. “For us to be successful, I have to play well and it didn’t just happen in that game.”
• Forward Andre Walker is expected to miss his 10th straight game due to a high ankle sprain he suffered in practice on Dec. 31. The starter has played in just eight games this year as he missed four due to mononucleosis.
• Cameras followed the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team for most of the day on Thursday as ESPNU’s All-Access was filming for a 30-minute show that will air on Feb. 16 (a time has not yet been announced). The television crew followed players around campus, to class, during practice and got a behind the scenes look in the athletic training room and in the locker room. The show has already featured Duke, Florida State and Kansas State, among others.
Vanderbilt 55, LSU 50
Stephanie Holzer made 10 of 17 field goals and led all scorers with 23 points as Vanderbilt shot 53.3 percent from the field against one of the Southeastern Conference's top defensive teams.
Holzer scored six points, including the first and last baskets, in a 12-3 run that put the the Commodores ahead to stay. The redshirt-freshman also made a team-high three free throws (Vanderbilt attempted just nine) on four attempts and had her team's only two steals.
Vanderbilt led by seven at halftime but LSU pulled even at 40-40 on a pair of free throws by Courtney Jones with 10:15 to play. Holzer answered with a layup a little more than two minutes later.
LSU came into the game first in the conference in points allowed per game (53.4) and second in field goal percentage allowed (34.5). The Lady Tigers forced 22 turnovers, but the Commodores made 24 of 45 shots overall, and two of three 3-pointers.
Freshman Jasmine Lister was 5-for-7 from the floor and added 11 points for Vanderbilt. Jence Rhoads had nine points, seven rounds and three assists.
Katherine Graham scored 17 points, and LaSondra Barrett had 14 for LSU. Jones had a career-high seven assists and was one of three Lady Tigers with three steals.